BY JEREMY HOECK
Six years ago, the USD women’s basketball team put together one of the craziest and most storybook seasons you could imagine. The Coyotes reeled off 31 straight wins, swept through their conference, won the league title, won the region crowd, and advanced all the way to the national championship game — losing by five points to Northern Kentucky.
That was at the Division II level.
Not that 2008 was less impressive, but what USD is embarking on this weekend at the NCAA Tournament is a whole different situation.
You’re talking the Big Dance. National exposure. ESPN2. Stanford.
This is the big time.
I remember thinking the day I heard USD announced Ryun Williams as its next head coach to replace Chad Lavin (who retired after the 2008 campaign) that there was a sense that it was the end of the national tournaments.
No way they could do it at this new thing called Division I?
South Dakota State had found success right away at the next level, so yes there was a sense that it could happen, but it still felt so far away.
From competing with Washburn and Delta State, the Coyotes would suddenly be thrown into the world of Connecticut and Tennessee.
Six years went by. Ryun Williams guided USD through the early stages of the D-I transition, eventually getting the program to the WBI and WNIT. He then turned that success into the head coaching job at Colorado State — certainly a step up the ladder.
In came Amy Williams, a South Dakota native with experiences as an assistant with a number of D-I programs.
Year one with her came up three points short in the Summit League championship game, and her team then made a run to the semifinals of the WBI.
And now, here we are, talking about the NCAA Tournament. The Big Dance. National exposure. ESPN2. Stanford.
Times have sure changed since 2008, haven’t they?
On that subject, former Coyote Maggie Youngberg (a Yankton native who was on that 2008 team) said watching this year’s squad win the Summit League and advance to the NCAA Tournament brought back memories of those games in Kearney.
How could they not?
She remembers well what it felt like to enjoy such success (though, as should be pointed out, USD went to Kearney as one of eight teams remaining, not 64 like in the NCAA Tournament). Still, Youngberg and her former teammates can relate.
They helped set the table for 2014. They established a tradition that still lingers today — Amy Williams has mentioned on more than one occasion how her current team owes a lot to its predecessors.
If the program had suddenly vaulted from transitional struggles into a surprising NCAA Tournament run, sure, you could say the 2014 squad did it on its own. But I doubt anyone would say that now. Not when teams before them brought USD, in different ways, on to the D-I radar.
It’s with that history in mind that the Coyotes will walk away from Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa on Saturday happy with their season. The sting of an expected loss will obviously be right at the surface, but deep inside, you can be guaranteed those players will count this season as a win.
And to be more accurate, it’s been a historic season.
Because whatever happens next season or the next few seasons, no matter how many NCAA tournaments USD qualifies for, that first one is special. That was the first time.