Six years ago, the University of South Dakota women’s basketball program thrust itself into the national conversation by nearly winning a Division II championship.
It was a rather big moment in the athletic history of the school based in Vermillion.
What the Coyotes are doing now, though, is a whole different accomplishment considering the level, according to former players on that 2007-08 squad.
USD, in its second year of eligibility for the NCAA Tournament, won the Summit League crown last week and will face No. 2 Stanford in today’s (Saturday) 5:30 p.m. first round game in Ames, Iowa.
“There’s another school on the Division I map now,” said former Coyote Maggie Youngberg, a Yankton native who was a key reserve on that 2008 team. “When we played and we won all those games, it was a big deal.
“But that was Division II. There’s a huge difference.”
As the hoopla for the Coyotes has grown since they beat Denver in the Summit League title game on March 11, so too have the references to that 2008 season — USD’s last in the D-II ranks.
“I grew up with USD basketball, watched it, played it. But now being a fan, you look back and think, ‘Yeah, that was a pretty big deal,’” said Beresford native Natalie Carda, a junior that season.
“These girls now might not realize it yet either. We’ll have to ask them in five years.”
As time has passed, those former players from the area have ventured off on their own paths.
Youngberg is now a special education teacher at Brandon Valley High School.
Carda is now a nurse at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls.
Amber Hegge (Crofton, Neb.) is now playing professionally in Australia.
Kara Iverson (Yankton) is now an Occupational Therapist in Greenville, S.C.
As though a script had been written, the 2007-08 season proved to be rather storybook-esque for the Coyotes in their final season being led by long-time head coach Chad Lavin.
They reeled off 31 consecutive wins, went undefeated in the North Central Conference, and captured a league tournament title and a regional crown on the way to a berth in their first Elite Eight.
While in Kearney, Neb., USD won on consecutive days to reach the national championship game. Then on national television, the Coyotes saw their magical run end with a 5-point loss to Northern Kentucky.
Even six years later, it’s hard to imagine everything USD went through in one season, Youngberg said.
“When you’re playing a college sport and you think about all the time and effort you put in, its amazing,” said Youngberg, who played in all 35 games, scoring 4.7 points and hitting 43 percent on three-pointers.
“I remember when we kept winning, we were sitting in the locker room and we all thought, ‘Wow, is this really happening?’”
And yet, it did.
Success of that magnitude, even if it came six years ago at a lower level, has proven to be a program-defining moment and a consistent reference for the 2013-14 version of the Coyotes.
Head coach Amy Williams, in her second season, took over a USD program that had already qualified for various D-I post-season tournaments under former coach Ryun Williams (no relation).
“I was very fortunate to walk into a situation here where the people who came before me had done a great job putting some pieces in place,” Amy Williams said this week. “And really laying the ground work for success.
“And I think that made me aware very quickly that this group is ready to make a run.”
Certainly, those players from six years ago weren’t out to be role models, Carda said.
“When I heard Amy Williams talk about our 2008 team, it was cool to think back and know we inspired someone else,” she said. “It’s weird to think how much that meant.”
Youngberg and Hegge are among that group to have an extra special connection to this year’s Coyote squad.
Youngberg spent two seasons, 2010-11 and 2011-12, as a graduate assistant with the Coyotes, while Hegge is the most recent graduate. Her senior season was 2011-12, and she played alongside current USD junior Lisa Loeffler — junior Nicole Seekamp was a redshirt that season.
“There are some girls on the team I helped recruit, so it’s an amazing feeling to see them have success,” Youngberg said.
Particularly on the national level.
The Coyote women had long lived in the D-I shadow of rival South Dakota State, which had won five consecutive Summit League titles before being dethroned in the semifinals this year.
“We always hear so much about South Dakota State, but now ESPN knows who USD is,” Carda said. “They’re making a name for themselves.”
Still, reaching the NCAA tournament isn’t simply about surpassing the Jackrabbits, Youngberg said, it’s national exposure.
“It’s not about catching up with SDSU or anything, its a big deal for everybody in South Dakota,” she said. “You’re always going to cheer for a South Dakota team, regardless of who it is.”
Not only having been on a team that made a deep tournament run, Carda can also relate to this season’s Coyotes and their next opponent, Stanford (29-3).
Carda was a senior on the 2008-09 USD squad that closed its season with a near upset of No. 11-ranked North Carolina — ultimately losing by six points.
“Stanford is a tough draw, but we almost beat North Carolina,” she said. “Nobody thinks a team from South Dakota can beat Stanford, but you never know.”
The Coyotes will be in a similar nothing-to-lose situation today, Carda said.
“That’s the thing, you don’t play scared in a game like that,” she said. “That’s how they have to play against Stanford.”