The Fabulous Falcons
Determination Launches SPU Women Into the Elite Eight
By Frank MacDonald
It was "one for all and all for one" as the Falcon women came together for a season which culminated in an overtime defeat of the University of California Davis to win the NCAA Division II western regional title.
It was a night like no other. A large, vocal crowd filled Brougham Pavilion, with fans standing for the final half-hour, then rushing onto the court following the final buzzer. It didn't matter if you were spectator, official or player. For anyone connected to Seattle Pacific University's women's basketball team, the evening of March 7 left an indelible memory.
The Falcons had proven themselves the best in the West, winning the NCAA Division II regional tournament by avenging last year's loss to the University of California Davis. With the triumph came the honor of playing in the Elite Eight, the national championship event in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Brougham was teeming with nearly 1,500 supporters for the regional final. "SPU's fans showed me something," says Chantel Vinson, one of five seniors on the team and the only graduating four-year letterman. "It was a great atmosphere, the kind you see at big-time events. But this was in our gym, and they were cheering for us."
After exchanging rallies with UC Davis throughout regulation play, SPU's final charge came in the tension-filled overtime period when the Falcons pulled away to win, 91-82. Minutes later, each team member climbed a ladder to snip a strand from the basket's net. The final cut came from Coach Gordy Presnell.
"It was such a great regional, such a good game and such a wonderful environment. It's only too bad that couldn't be the final memory from this season," says Presnell. Unfortunately, the Falcons' record-setting run came to an end in Arkansas, with an 86-57 loss to Northern Michigan.
For Presnell, this season was the next step in a painstaking process to put Seattle Pacific on the women's basketball map. Eleven years ago, he inherited a program that had not posted a winning record in nine years. In Presnell's second season, the team, then affiliated with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics(NAIA), made the local district playoffs. When they moved to NCAA Division II in 1991, the opposition was stiffer and, at times, the playoffs seemed like a pipe dream.
All that changed in 1994, when Vinson, then a freshman, and Debbie Miller, a prized transfer from the University of Oregon, ushered in a new era. In the final game of that regular season, SPU staged a home upset of nationally ranked Portland State to clinch an NCAA playoff berth.
From there, the Falcons have continued to improve. Last year they came within six points of UC Davis, despite playing the regional championship game on the Aggies' home court. This season, Seattle Pacific methodically marched through the schedule, pulverizing practically every team in its path.
Presnell tailored his tactics around his players' specific talents. Vinson, with her quick feet, long arms and dogged style, pressured teams up and down the court. Junior transfer Shana Ray ran the wings and rifled in jump shots from the perimeter. Senior center Wendy Kuipers possessed an uncanny knack for converting shots amidst a crowd under the basket. Heather Pemberton, another senior, was called upon to perform much of the dirty work, like rebounding and guarding the opponent's top post player.
And the ball belonged to Miller, the multi-talented and supremely confident maestro, who could just as well beat teams with her shot as with a court-length missile to an open teammate running under the hoop.
It all added up to nearly 90 points per game (second in the nation to eventual champion North Dakota) and an average winning margin of some 20 points. "We never let down," says Miller. "That's what was so rewarding."
As Vinson sat on the bench in Arkansas, the season's final seconds ticking away, she, along with most of her teammates, cried a steady stream of tears. "I cried, but at the same time I felt good. We'd been able to accomplish so much together and this season had gone so well. It was a hard time those last few minutes, but it felt great to know we've been part of something special."