Players and coaches celebrate on the floor after the Vikings beat Ripon.
Players and coaches celebrate after the Vikings beat Ripon, qualifying for their first conference tournament since 2007. (Photo by Paul Wilke)

The rest of the Midwest Conference didn't have a lot of faith in the Lawrence University women's basketball team before the season began in November.

It's safe to say there are more believers now. 

"We were ranked last in the conference in the preseason poll, and I think everyone took that kind of personally," junior forward Maggie Culver said.

Lawrence blew away the low expectations and earned the final berth in the four-team Midwest Conference Tournament this past weekend. The fourth-seeded Vikings take on top seed Ripon College at 5 p.m. Friday at Weiske Gymnasium. Illinois College faces Knox College in the other semifinal. The winner of Saturday's championship game receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. 

"We were going to be ready for the next opportunity," Lawrence coach Riley Woldt said of the team's approach this season. "This year, from day one, it's going to be our journey. It's going to be different than anyone else's so let's just make it our own. They've continued to stay together and work hard."

See a photo gallery from Saturday's big win over Ripon

Maggie Culver goes up for a shot against three Ripon defenders.
Maggie Culver was named Midwest Conference Player of the Week following her performance against Ripon. (Photo by Paul Wilke)

Despite being picked to finish last in the league, Lawrence has compiled a 15-10 record and has the most victories in a season since the 2005-06 team went 19-5. The Vikings entered the final day of the regular season knowing they would likely have to beat Ripon, which had already clinched the conference title, to earn a spot in the tournament. 

"You win, you get in. That's what you want," Woldt said. "I think we were very confident going into that game."

The Vikings jumped on Ripon early and led by as many as 13 points in the first half. Lawrence was up 27-19 heading to the second half.

"I don't think the gym's ever been this full for us so we knew it was going to be an electric environment," said Culver, who scored 18 points against Ripon and was named the Midwest Conference Player of the Week. "For us to be in a position to be 20 minutes away from going to the conference tournament, we were going to get there. I think we just wanted it more."

Junior forward Mallory Meyer expressed the same sentiment.

"Saturday was do or die so I felt like we wanted it more than them," said Meyer, who leads the team in scoring at 12.5 points per game and hit two free throws in the final seconds of overtime to seal the 74-71 victory over the Red Hawks.

Lawrence returns to the MWC Tournament for the first time since 2007, and the emotion of that achievement after the Vikings struggled through a decade of difficult seasons came pouring out on the court after the final buzzer sounded inside Alexander Gymnasium.

"A lot of relief and excitement," Meyer said of her thoughts after the game. "It had been three years thinking about that moment of making the tournament. It was awesome."

And it didn't come without a fair amount of heartbreak and healing. Culver, junior guard Caroline Sharpe and senior forward Emma Carlson all sustained season-ending knee injuries in 2022-23 when the Vikings were zeroing in on a conference tournament berth. Culver came back first, Sharpe followed a short time later and Carlson returned in January. The Vikings took some hits again this year when they lost junior guard Lydia Lueck and backup guards Tahlia Moe and Josie Eager to season-ending injuries.

"Our ladies have been working hard all season and stayed present through the highs and the lows. All through the year, you could tell they wanted more," Woldt said.

The return of the injured players combined with huge contributions from newcomers lifted Lawrence. First-year guard Charlotte Brennan is averaging 10.4 points and leads the MWC at 3.8 assists per game. Junior transfer Nikola Kuzmanovic and first-year guards Karly Beck and Kate Adams also have played significant minutes.

"This junior group has been through it all together. We've seen a lot of up and and downs together," Meyer said. "Charlotte has contributed so much. That's been the ticket in pulling all these pieces together. (The newcomers) have played a huge role already this season, and it's promising for the years to come."

Lawrence's 24 NCAA Division III athletic teams and intramurals provide a variety of opportunities for students to grow and develop as a person and in community.

Lawrence faces the challenge of having to beat Ripon, a team they just defeated, on its home floor to start the tournament. 

"The hardest part is getting to the tournament. Since we're there, it's anybody's tournament. I honestly think we can win," Culver said.

"That's part of our success right now -- we are very confident. We have a chip on our shoulder."

Meyer added that she knows Ripon will not take anything for granted when the game tips off Friday. 

"Friday is kind of different," Meyer said. "They are going to come out guns-a-blazin'. We have to have confidence in ourselves. We beat them once and can do it again, but knowing we are the underdogs, we are going to have to go and take it from them at their place."

Woldt has been longing for this challenge since he was hired as the head coach in 2018. He took over a program built for victory by legendary coach Amy Proctor, whom Woldt served under as an assistant, and resurrected it. 

"That's why we came here," Woldt said. "We came here because we felt like we had the opportunity to help Lawrence get back to competing for conference championships. For us, we've done something special ... But it's on to the next. Honestly, our ladies are going back to work. They don't want to be satisfied with just being in the tournament."