Cami Bruckman feels something is different about this team.
The senior from Roseland is one of five players who played in the NAIA national tournament when the Broncos last qualified in 2012 as a No. 5 seed.
That year, the Broncos beat Tennessee Wesleyan by double digits in the first round before falling to College of the Ozarks a day later.
Bruckman likes the chemistry of this year’s team heading into the tournament that starts this week. The No. 2-seeded Broncos (26-5) play an opening-round game Wednesday at 5:15 p.m. against Union College (Ky.).
“It wasn’t the same. We just didn’t have the same mentality as we have now,” Bruckman said. “I feel like our team is a lot stronger all around. I feel like the last time we went there, we weren’t expecting to make it very far. I mean, it sounds bad, but I don’t think anybody on the team expected us to make it that far.”
NAIA No. 4 Hastings, which finished the regular season in a four-way tie atop the Great Plains Athletic Conference standings before losing in the conference tournament semifinals, is a much more confident team heading back to the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
“Since day one, this has been our major goal,” said junior Jamie Van Kirk. “Now that we’re in this position, we’re not going there to mess around. We’re going there to win the national championship.”
The legacy that the name Hastings College carries at the national tournament is special. The Broncos are 31-10 there all-time, tied for second in the country for most wins.
But since finishing as national runner-up in 2009, HC has just qualified for the tournament twice, finishing 1-1 in both trips. That includes the 2010 season, where the Broncos were the No. 1 overall seed.
The Broncos want to change that recent downward trend.
“You know, it sucks losing in the second round. It sucks because you’re done,” Bruckman said. “That’s obviously something that we don’t want to have happen this year. We want to keep going. We want to keep playing.”
“We just want to back that up and keep the tradition rolling. I don’t look at the pressure of it,” Van Kirk said. “I just see it as a honor to put on that jersey and represent Hastings.”
The Broncos open up against the Bulldogs (24-8) from the Appalachian Athletic Conference, a program that’s 0-4 all-time at the national tournament. It’s the first-ever meeting between the two schools.
Bruckman said that Union compares a lot to Hastings’ GPAC foe Midland — a physical-minded team.
The Bulldogs’ offense starts with senior point guard Amber Taylor, who is second in the country with 203 total assists, or 6.3 assists per game. She’ll look to distribute the ball to either sophomore center Lydia Nash (18 points per game) or sophomore guard Haley Perkins (14 ppg). The Bulldogs’s offense produces 75 points per game on average.
“Their point guard is basically their go,” Bruckman said. “She’s driving and kicking, she leads in assists. If we get her slowed down, it will definitely help.”
Defensively, Van Kirk said that Union has shown just about everything on film so far. The team is giving up 67 points per game heading into the national tournament.
That doesn’t worry the Broncos, who have seen a different style of defense just about every night in conference play.
Essentially, the national tournament comes down to which team is able to string together five-straight wins. Earlier this season, Hastings College won 15 games in a row, four of which came against teams playing in Sioux City this week.
“We know we can do it,” Bruckman said. “It’s going to be tough and every game is going to be a battle. We can do it and we know we can, we just have to believe that.”
The last time the Broncos took to the floor on March 1, they had one of their weaker performances of the season in a GPAC semifinal loss to Morningside, 65-55. It took Hastings nearly 10 minutes to hit its first basket, as the team finished 19-of-72 from the floor in a game where the players looked like the season had taken its toll.
Both Van Kirk and Bruckman agreed that the team needed to step away for a bit from the grind it took to play in the most difficult conference in the NAIA. They hope they’ll have fresh legs to create another run at the national tournament.
“It was nice to get some rest,” Van Kirk said. “It was also good to get back and do some specific technique drills. You get into the season and you only have a couple days in between games, you don’t have time to go back and drill all that stuff. I think it’s going to be beneficial to have had that time to get those things in.
“Like Coach (Carrie) Hofstetter was saying, we have a foundation to what we do so we can go up there and be prepared for anything that’s thrown at us.”