PHENOMENAL SEASON FOR WOMEN’S SPORTS

PHENOMENAL SEASON FOR WOMEN’S SPORTS

by Tony Phifer

SO CLOSE. Halfway down, really. So very close.

When Sofie Tryggedsson’s last-second 3-pointer spun out of the basket, leaving South Florida with a 48-45 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the remarkable 2015-16 season put together by the Colorado State University women’s basketball team came to a disappointing end. If the shot spins in rather than out, the game goes into overtime and — who knows? — perhaps a chance to add another chapter to an historic season.

Instead, the Rams hugged each other a final time and headed home knowing they had done something amazing — and were part of a phenomenal few months put together by three of CSU’s women’s sports programs: basketball, volleyball and track.

“What a tremendous year this has been, and it speaks to the leadership in those programs,” said Joe Parker, CSU’s director of athletics.

The women’s basketball team ignited memories of the glory days of the late 1990s, when future NBA legend Becky Hammon was putting the program on the national map, by reeling off 28 consecutive wins and climbing into the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in 14 seasons. Their heartbreaking loss to a talent-laden South Florida team left the Rams with a 31-2 record, a third consecutive Mountain West title and a lifetime of memories for players, coaches, support staff and fans.

Three weeks earlier, the women’s track program made it back-to-back Mountain West championships, adding the indoor title to the outdoor version they won in 2015. It was the Rams’ first indoor crown in 10 years and just their second in the 17-year history of the Mountain West. In May, they added their second consecutive outdoor title.

And the volleyball team — of course — added to its lofty lore by winning its seventh consecutive conference title, winning 20 consecutive matches and recording 20 or more wins for the 21st consecutive season. They also qualified for yet another NCAA Tournament, extending the program’s streak to 21 — the seventh-longest such streak in the country.

Ryun Williams, who led the rebirth of women’s basketball by winning three league titles in his first four seasons, smiled with pride when asked about the recent run of success in women’s sports.

“I think we have good people in place in those programs, from coaches to players,” he said. “And we get great support administratively — our resources are winning resources. We have what we need to be successful, and [CSU President] Tony Frank’s a big part of that. He wants excellent programs whether it’s the livestock judging team or the women’s basketball team, and our players feel that support.”

Volleyball coach Tom Hilbert said the university’s rising reputation helps all programs. He alluded to a letter he had received recently from a standout high school volleyball player asking to be recruited. The reason: She had researched top volleyball programs at universities committed to sustainability — CSU is the only university to receive a Platinum STARS rating for sustainability — and determined that CSU was where she wants to be.

Athletics Infographic

CHANGING THE CULTURE

CSU has a long history of success in women’s track and field, producing numerous All-Americans, two national champions and an Olympic bronze medalist (Janay DeLoach, long jump). But after a devastating championship meet in 2013, coach Brian Bedard realized something needed to change. The once-powerful Rams fell apart, finishing seventh in the nine-team field.

“It was bad enough to finish the way we did, but then we got snowed in and we had to stay an extra day in Boise to wallow in our own misery,” he said.

Bedard said the big change was in recruiting. He and his coaches looked for character.

“We’re a blue-collar program, and we expect our athletes to work hard in practice and produce results in meets,” he said.

Williams faced a similar crossroads after his first season (2012-13) leading the women’s basketball program. The Rams were 11-19 that year and lacked the talent to compete with the Mountain West’s upper echelon.

“We had to change things — quickly,” he said.

Taking advantage of some connections to top European talent, Williams began stocking his roster with outstanding players from Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Winning immediately followed.

The Rams have gone a combined 79-18 over the past three seasons, including an eye-popping 48-6 mark in conference games. This year they not only became the first team in league history to run the table (18-0) in the regular season, they set Mountain West records for wins (31) and consecutive victories (28).

“WHAT THESE TEAMS ACCOMPLISHED THIS YEAR IS ONLY POSSIBLE WITH A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF HARD WORK BY OUR STUDENT-ATHLETES AND EVERYBODY ASSOCIATED WITH THE PROGRAMS. IT’S SOMETHING OUR FANS CAN HOLD UP AS PRIDEFUL MOMENTS IN THE LIFE OF OUR UNIVERSITY.”
– JOE PARKER, CSU’S DIRECTOR OF ATHLETICS

“You have the resources to win here, and that’s why I took this job,” Williams said. “I saw this as a winning place — a place you can believe in, and a place you can sell to a young lady. It’s a great town, a great university and the fans have a history of supporting women’s athletics.”

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