The Drury Lady Panthers - an infant program by NCAA Division II standards - had a basketball season envied by many more established programs. After topping three No. 1 teams this season, the four-year-old program's journey ended one step short of their goal as the Lady Panthers lost 75-72 to California University (Pa.) in the national championship game on March 27. No matter the outcome, this still was a season to remember.
Drury stormed into the NCAA tournament with a ton of confidence and a point to prove. Throughout the season, even as Drury lingered in the national rakings' top five, some said the team benefited from an easy schedule, that it would wilt in the NCAA tournament. Drury set out to prove everyone wrong from the opening tip of the South Central regional tournament, held in Weiser Gymnasium. The Missouri Western State College Griffons, from St. Joseph, were the first to fall, 74-57.
Two wins later, the Lady Panthers were headed 250 miles north to the St. Joseph Civic Arena for the Elite Eight. The St. Joseph newspaper, regretfully unimpressed by Drury's win over Missouri Western, picked opponent Seattle Pacific to beat the Lady Panthers by 17 points.
On paper, top-ranked Seattle Pacific University (the nation's only unbeaten team) had no weaknesses. But in the days leading up to the contest, coach Nyla Milleson exuded confidence. "They're very beatable," Milleson said in her office days before making the trip to St. Joseph. Her confidence was contagious. The Lady Panthers brought hundreds of fans to the game and beat Seattle Pacific 94-83.
Milleson took time after the win to thank her upperclassmen. "The kids have bought into our system," she said. "They believed that we could do something good. We knew we would be good, but not this fast."
Instead of worrying about their next opponent, Henderson State (Ark.), the Lady Panthers had some fun. The morning before the game, sophomore Amy Belew begged athletic trainer Keith Garnett to check a wound on her forehead, where 15 stitches were needed the night before to close the gash opened by a Seattle Pacific player's arm. While Belew stalled Garnett, the rest of the team ransacked the trainer's room, filled it with streamers and hid behind two double beds. Scant hours before playing in the biggest game of their careers, they put together a surprise birthday party.
Against Henderson State, everything clicked. As Drury's women sank 10 three-point shots, their fans went nuts. Those fans, the "sixth man," made all the difference in the world for the Lady Panthers. "We have a lot of confidence coming into the game, but when you see the doors open and see fans run in like a herd of elephants to get the best seat, you get excited," Milleson said.
Added All-American senior Amanda Newton, "The fans really got into the games. To see all that energy, it was amazing." Final score: Drury 82, Henderson State 70. Next stop: the national championship game against California University (Pa.).
The title game was carried live on ESPN2. To prepare, the team had a day. They went through press conferences with the California players. Then the team's starters had their photos taken for the ESPN broadcast. With hair and makeup in place, it was one of the few times players seemed concerned about appearance during their focused run in the Elite Eight. "We had to look nice," junior Hope Hunt said with a smile.
Coach Milleson recruits players from southwest Missouri's bastions of girls' basketball, towns like Stockton, Republic and of course Springfield. So while many players had enjoyed state championship runs, the idea of a national championship took a while to sink in. "We were lying in bed talking about the game and all of a sudden, it hit us," Newton said. "We're going to play for the national championship."
In the hour leading up to the title game, with ESPN's cameras in place, the St. Joseph Civic Arena quickly turned into Weiser Gym North. More than 2,000 red-clad fans made the trip to cheer on their team. They stayed with them when the California Vulcans jumped out to an early 11-point lead. They didn't give up when the Lady Panthers fell behind by 17 points, their widest deficit of the season. This team - their team - would make a run. The fans knew it. And sure enough the Lady Panthers did. Magen Brunson, one of four seniors playing her final game, made a 3-pointer to start a late run. The Lady Panthers kept chipping away, with baskets coming from Belew and senior Jill Curry. When Brunson hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 59, the arena shook with the sound of Drury fans.
But instead of absolutely perfect, the day was almost perfect. As the clock wound down, Drury stayed even with California until the last few seconds, when apotentially game-tying 3-point shot by sophomore Kara Rutledge fell short. California celebrated a 75-72 win, and Drury fans celebrated a great season and one of the most thrilling title games in NCAA history.
It's been a tremendous season," Milleson said, her voice cracking at the post season pressconference."We were just a few points short, but I've never been more proud to be around a group of young ladies."
The Lady Panthers' run for the top may have been the most visible success in athletics this year, but it was far from unique. The men's basketball team went farther in the NCAA-II national tournament than ever before, before losing to Northwest Missouri State University in the Sweet 16, played at Tarleton State University, Texas. The tournament fireworks capped a 24-8 season. Senior Chris Mortellaro was named to two different All-America teams. The season ended on a bittersweet note, though: it was the last for Gary Stanfield, who left Drury after 20 years, including 12 years as head coach. Under Stanfield's guidance, every player who finished his eligibility at Drury also graduated from Drury, an impressive record of support for academic excellence in athletics. In recent years, however, men's basketball suffered from a lack of fan support, the academic problems of a couple of the players and what looked like a downward slide in the win column. As always, the responsibility fell on the coach, and Gary accepted it with grace. Steve Hesser, head coach at Glendale High School, joined Drury in April.
Drury's men's and women's swimming and diving teams, long a national power, finished second this year at the national championship meet. On the men's side, sophomore Jakub Jiracek was named the meet's Most Valuable Swimmer and senior Nathan Brisley was the Most Valuable Diver.
New Panther Gets Ready to Pounce
We can't show it to you yet, but come this fall there will be a new Drury panther on the prowl, part of a new athletic logo. The new look will be used by all Drury intercollegiate teams; until now each coach chose the team's logo.
"Drury is a national power in men's and women's basketball, swimming and diving and tennis, and we intend to be a national power in each of our 13 sports," says Athletic Director Dr. Edsel Matthews. "Just as other nationally-recognized programs have a unified look, we felt it was time to do the same."
The new logo was designed by The Team, a marketing firm based in Ozark, Mo. Brad Oliver '91 is a vice president at the company and a men's basketball booster. He says, "I am so excited to be able to help Drury create a new look and feel for its athletic programs. Drury athletics have an outstanding tradition of success in combining winning records with academic success. The visual identity we're helping to develop will reinforce that tradition while reflecting the energy Drury has when it looks to the future."