A lot of athletes would have enjoyed getting the kind of accolades that University of St. Francis women’s basketball player Kaitlin Aylward received this past season.
Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year, an NAIA D-II National Player of the Week and a four-time CCAC Player of the Week recipient to name a few.
Although the senior forward/center who finished her career as the program’s third-best scorer was understandably pleased to be recognized on several occasions, she viewed all of the honors as just being the beneficiary of playing on a special Saints team, which finished 29-5 and advanced to the NAIA D-II tournament and won a game in Sioux City, Iowa, before their season ended early because of the coronavirus.
Last week, the Trinity High School graduate and Elmwood Park resident was one of 10 players named to the NAIA D-II Women’s Basketball All-America first team after earning second team recognition a year ago.
She was the CCAC scoring champion in points and average, finished second in steals and was fourth in field goal percentage. She ranked third in the nation in total points (677), sixth in average (20.5), 16th in steals (83) and 36th in field goal percentage (.493).
“I was definitely excited when I found out, but basketball is not really an individual sport, so I don’t really focus on the awards that I get. It’s just the accomplishments as a team this year, which I think put a big stamp on St. Francis women’s basketball,” Aylward said.
After being recruited by former coach Samantha Quigley Smith, she played for her for one season in 2016-17 when USF went 34-2 and played in the national semifinals. In the past three seasons, she’s played for coach Steve Brooks. The Saints posted a 109-26 record (.807 percentage) during her four-year playing career.
Aylward finished her career with 2,141 points to rank behind only Chris Quigley Strle [Prieboy] and Katie Gonnering. She had 850 rebounds, 294 assists, 249 steals and 68 blocked shots, while shooting .489 from the floor, .344 from 3-point range and .761 at the free-throw line.
“At first, when we found out that [Quigley Smith] was leaving, I was definitely upset because I only got to play one year for her,” said Aylward, who also was a three-time All-CCAC selection. “It wasn’t hard to transition, but it was a completely different coach and style, and obviously three years later, he’s done a great job.”
About the only negative thing Aylward can point to is how this season ended. The Saints started 2-2 after losing to two highly ranked teams and then won all 18 of their NAIA games between Dec. 9 and Jan. 25. Then in the the CCAC Tournament, they avenged losses to Robert Morris and Saint Xavier to win the title.
But after beating Southern Oregon University in their first NAIA tournament game, they didn’t get the chance to play against West Virginia Institute of Technology.
“We fell short at nationals last year,” Aylward said. “So we knew the expectation and what we had to do in order to get back there. Winning a tournament championship was one of our biggest goals, and when we did, that was probably the best basketball day of my career. It was good to get revenge on the two teams that we lost to in the regular season.
“I understand where they were coming from, and as soon as I heard that [the tournament cancellation was official, there were definitely tears. It was very sad because I didn’t know that last Wednesday would be my last game. The only positive is that we ended the season on a win.”
“I liked the determination that we had and everyone had a different role on the team and once everyone figured out what their role was, that’s when we took a huge step forward. We were so successful and it was one of the best years that I had at St. Francis, for sure.”