The last college basketball team in South Dakota still alive for a championship boarded a bus at 8:30 Sunday morning at the Elmen Center on their way to San Antonio, where the Augustana women will be making their first appearance in the Division II Elite Eight on Tuesday.
No, they didn’t bus the whole way, instead a traveling group of about 25 or so including coaches, media, etc., chartered a plane that took off directly from Sioux Falls at 9:57 a.m. and landed in San Antonio at 12:43. It was a longer flight than I expected, but that’s because I didn’t quite realize how close San Antonio is to the border.
Chartering is the way to go, as there were none of the usual airport headaches — we just hopped straight from the bus to the plane, which, despite being a smaller, prop-job, was quite comfortable, giving us more leg room than anyone who’s ever been on a plane would be used to. I’m sure Bill Gross appreciated that.
The team is staying in a pretty sweet Hyatt Regency downtown, right on the Riverwalk. After we checked in I spent about an hour walking around downtown — it was a brisk 65 degrees and breezy, apparently last week it was in the 90s.
I stopped by the Alamo but didn’t go in, just stopped and snapped some photos. My first thought upon seeing it was, ‘Well, no wonder everyone died.’ The place isn’t real impressive, though it isn’t hard to get a sense of the history behind it. I also had lunch at a downtown bar to watch the NCAA tourney for awhile, and the waitress there insisted on calling me ‘South Dakota’, which I enjoyed.
The Vikings will practice at 8 a.m. on Monday, in preparation for their showdown with Clayton State (Ga.), the No. 1 team in the nation.
Augie will definitely be an underdog — of the 8 teams to reach San Antonio, six were No. 1 seeds and another was a No. 3. Augie was a six-seed.
But as we’ve said all along, this is a team that had the potential to get here all along, and it makes more sense to judge them by how they’ve played since the end of the regular season than by their overall record (which is still a very impressive 27-6, marking a new school record for wins).
I’ve mentioned this before, but my first-ever assignment at the Argus Leader was an Augie women’s basketball game, against Minnesota-Crookston at the Elmen Center in November of 2003. The Vikings won, and I interviewed Dave Krauth, Katie Krauth and Laura Hensley after the game, even though I remember that Erin Johnson was Augie’s leading scorer that night.
I remember being pretty nervous, particularly about interviewing Dave. I was 23 years old then and sure hadn’t spent a lot of time paying attention to Division II women’s basketball, but my parents had taken me to enough Augie games over the years and I’d seen him on TV and in the papers enough to know who he was, and to know that the women’s basketball team was the most consistently successful program at Augustana.
That’s almost a full decade ago, and I assure you, it sure doesn’t seem that long ago.
I’ve covered, I don’t know, probably close to 200 Augie women’s games since then, and honestly, I’ve only seen them lose in person a few times.
That made it easy to appreciate and respect what the Vikings have been able to accomplish over the years, but obviously they failed to take the next step.
There were a lot of teams that had a chance. In 2004-05, the Vikings were knocked out of the tournament in Grand Forks when USD’s Jenni Flynn caught fire late, stunning Augie with a last-second shot in an 84-83 win. That was the last game of Katie’s career, which made it an especially emotional loss.
There was the 2006-07 team that went 25-7, winning 20 games in a row at one point, only to go one-and-done in the regional tourney.
Two years later their season ended at the hands of Minnesota State, who would go on to win the national championship, although the Vikings at least had the bragging rights of having beaten the eventual champs during the regular season.
Augie won 24 more games in 2009-10, but were walloped by Fort Lewis in the playoffs.
Last year, behind sixth-year point guard Molly Hayes, the Vikings clearly had the talent to get here, turning the NSIC into a two-team race between themselves and Wayne State. It was a pretty close series through the season, but Augie played what is literally the worst game I’ve ever witnessed from them in the regional final in Wayne, for a 63-40 loss that ended their season at 24-7.
Finally this year the Vikings saved their best for last.
I was in Rochester covering the NSIC tournament, and when Krauth climbed the ladder to cut down the net, celebrating the first conference championship of his long career (he’s been Augie’s coach since 1989, which was essentially the dark ages of women’s college sports), I found myself thinking back to so many of those moments. The first game I ever covered. That heartbreaking loss to USD in Grand Forks (and me having to climb a 12-foot fence, carrying my laptop, to get out of the Englested and to my truck afterward).
I thought of a game in the DakotaDome where Augie got absolutely clobbered by the Coyotes, and how I was kind of nervous to talk to Dave, thinking he was going to be in no mood to talk. He was mad, for sure, but I was surprised to find that he seemingly couldn’t wait to talk to me. He was just so mad and incredulous with his teams effort that he couldn’t wait to vent to someone. I’ve never been worried about Dave not being in the mood to talk ever since.
I thought of all the times I saw terrific players and young women crumple to the floor after tearing an ACL, and how whenever that happened — and it’s sadly happened way too often to this team — I knew everyone was thinking the same thing. That the Vikings’ chances of making a postseason run were once again taking a big hit.
I thought about the women I got to know and like — Laura Hensley, Alison Adamson, Whitney Hofer, Andrea Seefeldt, Jessica Klein, Amy Puthoff, Chelsea DeVille, Megan Doyle, Molly Hayes — several of whom have gone on to become successful coaches themselves. I thought about how their time playing for Krauth at Augie surely played a role in them becoming the adults that they have.
The Vikings are, as I said, big underdogs Tuesday, and I’ll be honest, it would surprise me if they made a run to the finals here this week.
But to reach the Elite 8, which, in Division II is essentially the equivalent of the Final Four, is no small feat.
It’s a reward for this year’s team, a validation for all the great players who have made the Augie women’s program into what it is, and a signature moment in Krauth’s Hall of Fame career.
The game’s Tuesday at noon, and I’ll be hosting a live chat for fans to follow along. Hope to see you there.