March 22, 2006
ABILENE, Texas - A lot of people get second chances in life, it was what you do with them that counts.
Hardin-Simmons' women's basketball team took full advantage of a second-chance on its season and turned the opportunity into an unforgettable journey to the Division III Women's Basketball Final Four.
The Cowgirls opened the season with high expectations, but had a bumpy road in the first semester. HSU started the season 5-0, but the Cowgirls were still adjusting to three new starters in the lineup.
The last week of the first semester ended with the Cowgirls losing to cross-town rival McMurry, a narrow win over what turned out to be one of the weaker teams in the conference Louisiana College and a loss at Mississippi College. It was the first time the Cowgirls had lost two games in a week since the 2001 season.
It took a long bus ride home after a lengthy meeting in the locker room for the Cowgirls to reconsider their goals for the season. It was also foreshadowing of what would happen two months later in the season.
The Cowgirls came back from the Christmas break with more passion and fire and things turned for HSU. HSU won 13 games in a row, including wins over nationally-ranked teams Howard Payne and McMurry. Everything was going smooth for the Cowgirls as they won the 13 games by an average margin of 21.3 points per game.
Everything looked good for the Cowgirls and they even took over first-place in the ASC West for a day. But in the last game of the winning streak junior point guard Sarah Hauk suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee. She would not return the rest of the season and it hurt as Hauk had been playing as well as anybody on the team in the stretch and her play was largely responsible for the Cowgirls turning their season around.
The Cowgirls had relied almost exclusively on Hauk at point guard and Rachel Cisneroz and Shanika Conaway, although talented were not ready to be the starter. Just like Hauk had an adjustment period over the first semester, both players needed an adjustment period. The problem was the season was coming to an end and they did not have time to learn how to play the point on the fly.
Cisneroz had a good game against Howard Payne with a career-best eight assists. Conaway, who had learned of the death of her sister just prior to the game, also played well. However, the Cowgirls lost the game by two points.
The following Thursday HSU did not play very well in a loss at Mary Hardin-Baylor and had 20 first-half turnovers in a win to close the regular season against Concordia-Austin. HSU limped into the ASC Tournament with losses in two of the last three games.
In the first round of the ASC Tournament, the Cowgirls again did not handle the defensive pressure very well and ETBU shot well down the stretch to knock the Cowgirls out of the tournament, which was held in Clinton, Mississippi. The coaches and players thought the season was over.
The turning point of the season once again came in a locker room at Mississippi College. The team had a meeting where they let the emotions flow. They talked about what had gone wrong and how they were going to fix it in the offseason. Players were honest with each other and it turned out to be the best medicine the team could have received.
With little expectation of getting into the tournament, the team did not gather for the NCAA release of pairings. The team went its own separate directions and ultimately the NCAA Selection Committee put the Cowgirls in the field and the team that was spread all over town quickly found out the word.
The players and coaches a like were surprised, but it was not like the Cowgirls did not earn the bid. With an expanded field that allowed for 21 at-large berths it is hard to leave a team out of the tournament with 20 wins and two wins over teams with 20 or more wins. When the total criterion was looked at HSU really wasn't as close to the bubble as it may have seemed.
With the second chance the Cowgirls went to work implementing some of the things that were discussed in that team meeting. What was supposed to happen over the course of the summer, suddenly was put into action three days later on the practice floor. Each practice was more intense than the last and the Cowgirls had a renewed spirit that you could feel every time you walked in the practice court.
Not only had the Cowgirls been given a berth into the tournament, they also drew the perfect opponent in the first-game. With cross-town rival McMurry having won the American Southwest Conference title there was plenty of motivation when the two teams were paired for the first round.
Not only was there a motivation factor, HSU also matched up well with McMurry's personnel. The two teams split in the regular season and in the last game at the Mabee Complex, the Cowgirls never trailed. HSU showed no fear against the Lady Indians.
In front of a packed house at Kimbrell Arena the Cowgirls found themselves in an immediate 9-2 hole just over two minutes into the game. However, HSU settled down and went on a 16-4 to take the lead and they never would surrender in the 64-53 win.
Sonya West had 10 points and 16 rebounds against her former team and freshman Rachael Singletary came off the bench for a career-best 18 points. The Cowgirls limited the Lady Indians to 30 percent shooting and starters Maigen Sawyer (an HSU transfer) and Kaycee Venekamp went a combined 2-for-18 from the field. HSU started a trend that would last throughout the rest of the season. Tough defense and balanced scoring carried the Cowgirls in the postseason.
The next night HSU played another conference rival, Howard Payne, and were in control throughout the game. Five players scored in double figures and West again led the way with 19 points and 16 rebounds. Lyssa Dennard also limited ASC player of the year Meia Daniels to 9-for-28 shooting. With the win, the Cowgirls moved to the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in eight seasons.
HSU hit the plane for a trip to the Pacific Northwest to play at Pacific Lutheran University. The Lutes had a great season and were playing in front of a packed house, but it did not faze the suddenly confident Cowgirls. HSU played its game and had a six-point lead late in regulation, before PLU scored the last six points to send the game to overtime.
The Cowgirls responded in overtime and led by as many as nine points. They eventually won 76-72 and again it was a balanced attack with four players in double figures. Melissa Henley became the third different player to lead the team in scoring in the playoffs with 20 points. Rachel Cisneroz played great with a career-best 12 points and HSU used a smothering defense. Dennard limited All-American Nikki Johnson to 2-for-14 shooting in the game and just six points.
The win sent the Cowgirls to the Elite Eight for the third time in school history. The last two times HSU had leads in the second half, but could not close the deal on a trip to the Final Four. This time HSU left no doubt against 2005 national finalist Randolph-Macon and National Player of the Year Megan Silva. Rachel Cisneroz topped the career-high she set the night before with 17 points, including five 3-pointers, becoming the fourth different Cowgirl to lead the team in scoring in the NCAA Tournament. West added 14 points and 18 rebounds
HSU jumped out to a 16-point first-half lead, but the Yellowjackets made a run and eventually took the lead for one possession in the second half. HSU took the lead right back and then increased the margin from that point en route to the 72-56 win and the first trip by the school to the Final Four. Dennard was again a force on defense, limiting Silva to 19 points on 7-for-23 shooting. Silva started the game 4-for-5 from the field and finished just 3-for-18.
The Cowgirls enjoyed the night in Tacoma, but had to be off to the airport at 4 a.m. It is amazing on a trip where Mt. Rainier is just miles from your hotel not once could you see the amazing site, because of cloud cover.
Teams always talk about the Final Four and how great of an experience it is and they are right. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes ensuring everything is taken care of. There are hotels to reserve, flights to book, opponents to scout, press conferences to attend, dinners, practice plans, tickets to hand out and the list goes on. It is a credit to Coach Briggs, her staff, John Neese and his staff that they kept everything running smoothly so a hectic week did not become a distraction for the girls.
There were endless amounts of well-wishers and gift-givers that came by the Cowgirls practices all week. Kudos came from people of all ages, including former national player of the year Kendra Anderson and HSU Hall of Famer Donna Roberts. The whole week was really a culmination of many years of hard work among those involved in the program.
A Tuesday press conference with 20 or so local and national media on Tuesday is not part of the regular routine, but the Cowgirls handled it like it happens every day. Throughout the entire tournament run how calm and natural the Cowgirls seemed was an impressive display.
After a practice on Wednesday, it was off to Dallas for a flight to Hartford. Approximately 100 fans saw the Cowgirls off to the Final Four. After a meal in the Airport, the Cowgirls were on the three and a half hour journey to Hartford, Conneticut. The Cowgirls were met at the airport with signs welcoming them to the Final Four and then it was obvious what a special week was in front of the Cowgirls.
The Connecticut state police escorted the Cowgirls the 15 or so miles to the Massachusetts state line and then it was the Massachusetts state's patrol giving the escort into the Marriott Hotel in Springfield. As soon as you walked to the door it was obvious what the teams were playing for. The Walnut and Bronze national championship trophy was on display in the revolving doors at the hotel and at about 11:30 the Cowgirls were finally to their room.
Thursday consisted of a practice at Springfield College and the Cowgirls saw some old friends in Kathryn Otwell and Michelle Schilling who were there to watch practice. Otwell now coaches at Boston University. After lunch it was off to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
It was a rewarding experience, especially for Lyssa Dennard. Lyssa's mother, who was an All-American at Stephen F. Austin, is prominently displayed in the Hall. Mrs. Dennard is guarding a player that was inducted to the Hall of Fame and she was in the 8-foot-tall photo.
The Cowgirls then went back to the hotel to prepare for the pre tournament banquet that was also held at the Hall of Fame in the James Naismith room. Each team had a player speak about their school and Shelby Hodges did a great job telling the crowd about Hardin-Simmons. It was also the 25th anniversary of the Division III Women's tournament and four members of the 25th anniversary team were on hand for a panel discussion.
The All-American team was announced and the evening ended with a reenactment of the history of Springfield by the Springfield College gymnastics team that was painted in full gold body paint.
Maybe the biggest point of the whole night was brought up by legendary Washington University coach Nancy Fahey. She told the audience to take time and soak up some of the surroundings, because it will be some of the best memories of your life and once you are here once your basketball life will be consumed with getting back.
All of the pre tournament hype led up to a 9 a.m. practice on game day and the Cowgirls had their pre game meal at, where else, Olive Garden. After some quick film study and review of the game plan the team was ready for the school's first-ever appearance in the Final Four.
A police escort took the Cowgirls to the game and you could feel the electricity in the air as HSU came into the gym for the first time. A packed house was starting to fill in and the Cowgirls were set for the game. A small, but vocal purple and gold crowd cheered the team as the came on and off the court and the time had finally arrived.
The teams were introduced and the starters were shown on a huge projector screen. You could feel the excitement. The Cowgirls started off the game cold and trailed by nine at halftime. Southern Maine pushed the lead to 18 at the 16:28 mark and things looked dim for HSU.
With the same heart and desire that got the team to Springfield, the Cowgirls mounted a serious come back. Lindsay Thompson scored 10 points in a 26-10 HSU run that made the score 55-53 with just over six minutes to play. HSU fought hard down the stretch, but like the Cowgirls had done all throughout the tournament; it was Southern Maine's turn to hit the big shot to seal the game. HSU lost 74-65, but they won the hearts of three of the teams in the gym.
The Cowgirls' comeback had worked the crowd into a frenzy and the other fans in the crowd seemed to be behind HSU. The Cowgirls had done what it looked like they would not do early in the first half and that was prove they belonged in the Final Four. HSU responded like champions and although they came up short on the scoreboard everyone in the arena knew the Cowgirls belonged.
HSU also lost the third-place game, which is a tough game mentally for both teams to get prepared for. Neither team played at the level that advanced them to Springfield, but Scranton was able to garner the win. Lyssa Dennard scored 14 points and was the fifth different Cowgirl to lead the Cowgirls in scoring in the six games of the NCAA Tournament.
The two losses did not dim what was a great run for the Cowgirls. It was a positive experience and talking with the people that were associated with the tournament the Cowgirls received rave reviews for how they represented their school. They were respectful, polite and as expected classy as always in victory and defeat.
The trip home was an adventure after a delay in the airport and then sitting on the runway in Dallas. Then a bus ride, put the Cowgirls home around 4 a.m. on Monday. That adventure was completed with two important elements as freshman Kara Martin was in charge of the trophy and freshman Mollie Brawner was in charge of the game ball.
They both accomplished the mission and both items made it home and will be permanent reminders of the adventure that started in a locker room in Clinton, Miss. and finished in Springfield, Mass., at the Final Four.