Well, technically it happened in Sioux City, Iowa — but 1999 marked the year that a little school from Portsmouth won a 32-team tournament to become NAIA Division II National Champions.
On Saturday, as part of SSU’s homecoming festivities, the entire 1999 National Championship team was inducted into the SSU Athletic Hall of Fame.
The induction took place at a brunch in the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts where highlights of the season were shown and coach Robin Hagen-Smith shared memories of each member of that special team. Also on display was the national championship trophy and several framed pages from the Portsmouth Daily Times’ coverage of the 1999 season.
Stories were told about the 1999 team’s 80-65 win over St. Francis (Ind.) to win the title, having the bus escorted from the U.S. 23 rest stop to campus by a caravan of fans and even eating at Applebees every night of the tournament.
After reliving some of the greatest moments in Shawnee State sports history, Hagen-Smith shared a memory from the early days of the womens basketball program — when things were’nt so great.
“We took a team to Central State and at halftime, we were down 40-points,” she said. “To this day I think my single greatest motivational speech was to get that team to come out for the second half. I remember sitting down in the locker room and I told (assistant coach and husband) Gregg (Smith), ‘We might need to find another profession. I can’t handle this losing by 40 points. It’s humiliating.’
“If somebody came down into the locker room that night and said ‘Coaches, eight years from today you will win a national championship.’ We would have looked at each other and said, ‘ In what particular sport?’” she added.
But eight years later the Bears would have 1999 NAIA Division II Player of the Year Erica Hayes-Zinn, Brandi Baker-Damron and a host of other talented players that would put Shawnee State on the map.
Hagen-Smith talked about receiving the national championship trophy at a coaches convention.
“When the spotlight hit and I gave my acceptance speech, (University of Connecticut head coach) Geno Auriemma was the first person I saw,” Hagen-Smith said. “The little girl from South Webster, was going to tell Geno and (University of Tennessee head coach) Pat Summit what it was like to win it all. That was a great moment for me.
“Everybody that night, there were probably 2,000 coaches and some of the greatest coaches of all time,” she added. “They saw the highlight film and they saw the celebration ... on the court. For that night, everybody in the country knew where Shawnee State was, what we represented and who you all were and they still do today. They know where Portsmouth is.”
Hayes-Zinn was SSU’s leading scorer in 1999, averaging just under 25 points a contest. Hayes-Zinn was honored to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a member of the team — she had already been inducted as an individual in 2005.
“It’s such a great honor and such a great experience,” Hayes-Zinn said. “Just to reflect back 10 years ago to winning it all, that’s all you ever work for. It’s nice to be honored today. It seems like yesterday, reminiscing and looking back and the highlights and the game film. Time has flown by.
Hayes-Zinn said shared her memory of hearing WNXT’s Roger Gray count down the game’s last moments for the first time.
“Roger does such a good job on the radio just making you feel like you’re right there,” she said. “The excitement in his voice and hearing it for the first time just gave you chills. Roger holds a very special place in all of our hearts.”
The 1999 team had five Academic All Americans, so does the 2009 team. The 1999 squad started it’s season with a 14-game winning streak, the 2009 team has won it’s first 20 games.
With those similarities, Hayes-Zinn said the 1999 team might not be the only national championship team in SSU history for long.
“This would be a great year for them to (win it all),” Hayes-Zinn said. “We’re cheering for them so hopefully it will happen again 10 years later.”
JOHN STEGEMAN can be reached at email@example.com