MOUNT VERNON — Only a select few athletes get to continue their athletic careers at the college level. And even fewer have the opportunity to play for four years.
Mount Vernon native Emily Culbertson is one of those few athletes who have had that opportunity, and it shows in her career statistics. The Ohio Northern University senior is closing in on some career marks as her basketball play winds down.
“This has been a lot of fun,” said Culbertson. “The intensity is so much different. The game pace, with the shot clock, is really different. It is also different because, in college, I play with or against everyone I’ve played AAU ball with or high school, and I’ve made friends with everyone. The team here is like family.”
Culbertson, a point guard, has been at the heart of a Polar Bear squad that has seen a resurgence of late. She has started 98 straight games dating back to her freshman season, and with her at the point, Ohio Northern has posted a 56-42 mark, including a 19-7 mark last season. This season, the Polar Bears are 8-11 overall and 6-6 in the Ohio Athletic Conference.
“Coming into the program, it was kind of rough,” said Culbertson. “They didn’t have a point guard so I did have to start right away, which was really nice. Every year we’ve gotten better, and every year we’ve moved up in the conference. Last year, we ended up second in the regular season, and almost made it to the national tournament. It has been great to be involved in turning this program around the past few years.”
Playing in the Ohio Athletic Conference against the likes of Capital University and Baldwin-Wallace has taught Culbertson a lot. It has also raised her level of play.
“The competition level is amazing, especially since it is Division III,” Culbertson said. “It is surprising because everyone is not here for scholarships, but for the love of the game. That’s a big difference. The OAC is one of the toughest conferences in Division III college basketball, and every time we go out there, it is the hardest game we are going to play. Even the lowest team in the conference is going to bring it at you.”
This season has been a challenging one. The Polar Bears graduated a large senior class last year, and had only a handful of returning letter winners.
“At the beginning of this year, it was kind of rough because we only had two players — myself and Alisha Rinehart — that have three years experience of varsity playing time,” said Culbertson. “The other two upperclassman have about two years experience, so it is a lot of young girls playing, a lot of freshmen. It has been a lot of rebuilding again, but we have a great class come in. They are all out there wanting to get better, wanting to win.
“We were used to jumping right into things because we only lost one or two seniors my first two years here. Then last year, we lost six seniors so it is a big difference.”
With the challenge of many young players came the challenge of leadership. Culbertson, normally a soft-spoken individual, has had to step forward and take the reins of leadership for the sake of the team.
“I have had to be a leader,” Culbertson said. “Those freshmen look up to us; every little move, they are watching your attitude, on the court off the court, and how you treat coaches. There are always eyes on you, and it feels like that so much more this year than there has been the past few years. There are just so many of them.”
Culbertson is third on the school’s all-time list in steals, just six away from the record holder (216). She is also 13 steals away from breaking that career mark as well (166). In addition to those opportunities, Culbertson is tied for fifth in career 3-pointers made (91), 17th in career free throws made (150) and 10th in career free-throw percentage (.735). She is also averaging 2.78 rebounds per game and 5.2 points a game for her career.
Culbertson, who scored a career-high 19 points on Jan. 24 in a 72-63 overtime win over Marietta College, isn’t all that concerned about the career marks. If she does her job and makes her teammates better, those numbers will take care of themselves.
“I don’t look at the personal records much at all. I just love being a part of this, and turning this program around has been a lot of fun. I had a choice between Capital and here, and I knew Capital had a winning program. I chose Ohio Northern because I wanted to be a part of making a difference in the program.
“It is nice that I am that close, but we are focused on trying to get a top-four finish in the conference so we can host a home game for the tournament. I’m not too worried about the records.”
With the end of the season and graduation day fastly approaching, Culbertson is aware that her life is about to change. The sports management major is preparing for that, though it may not be a welcomed change at first.
“There are three weeks left in our season and then the tournaments; It has gone by fast, really fast,” Culbertson said. “It is crazy to think that I am almost done.”
Fans who would like to see Culbertson in action one last time have their best opportunity Wednesday night. Playing their closest game to Knox County this season, the Polar Bears are in Westerville to take on Otterbein College. Game time is set for 7:30 p.m. Ohio Northern also hits the road on Feb. 14 to play Capital University. Tip-off for that game is 3 p.m.