By Tom Williams
Chelsea Bowker calls her journey from Crestview High to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament “simply amazing.”
The 2009 Crestview graduate is a junior on the St. Bonaventure University squad (29-3) that won the Atlantic-10 Conference regular-season title.
The Bonnies earned the team’s first tournament berth as an at-large selection and are the fifth seed in the Raleigh region.
They will play No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Tallahassee, Fla. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
“This is really exciting,” said Bowker of the Bonnies’ first NCAA appearance.
“Once we clinched the A-10 title, we knew we had a great shot.”
Last year’s team went 21-12.
“After each season ends, we usually list goals for next year,” Bowker said. Instead, her teammates all chose just one goal — “make the tournament.”
The Bonnies responded, earning their coach, Jim Crowley, the ESPN.com’s national coach of the year award.
Their 18-game winning streak was snapped on March 5 in the Atlantic 10 tournament title game by Dayton, 56-53.
Sunday’s game won’t be her first experience at the NCAA tournament. When she was in elementary school, Bowker remembers seeing Pat Summitt’s Tennessee team play in the NCAA opening round at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.
“Ever since, my dream was to play in the NCAA tournament,” said Bowker, whose 2,012 points for Crestview set the school and Columbiana County scoring records. “And we’re not just satisfied to be there — we want to get to the second round.”
Sunday’s winner will face the winner of the Georgia-Marist game in Tuesday’s second round.
An elementary education major at the in Western New York school, Bowker said tournament fever for the men’s and women’s teams has taken over the small town of Bonaventure, N.Y. During her student teaching duties this week, Bowker was surprised with cheers when she went into the lunchroom.
“Growing up, I knew I either wanted to work with older people or children,” Bowker said of her major. “I want to be able to do something to help someone.”
Balancing her student teaching with the team’s schedule has been a challenge.
“You just have to make the most of the travel time to keep up,” said Bowker, adding that the elementary school and teachers have been very accommodating with her schedule.
This season, Bowker averaged 7.2 points per game and 2.7 rebounds. She averaged 20 minutes per game.
She said her best game of the year was on Dec. 18 in a 67-56 win over Marist when she scored 19 points.
Another highlight came in Pittsburgh on Feb. 1 when the Bonnies defeated Duquesne, 58-53, to snap the Dukes’ 11-game home-winning streak.
“They are our biggest rivals,” Bowker said of Duquesne.
She said her parents, Corey and Michelle Bowker of Salem, have been to all but four of her games this season.
“I owe them big time,” she said, recalling how her parents had her participating in a Crestview youth program when she was in first grade.
She also credits former Crestview High girls coach Tanja Simione for helping her development.
“Without her guidance, I probably wouldn’t be here,” said Bowker of her four-year varsity career. “I was a ball girl for her team before junior high.”