Blackburn women were tournament bound 20 years ago
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By Tom Emery
Rarely does a 13-13 team make a mark. The Blackburn College women’s basketball team of 1996-97 is an exception to the rule.
That season, Blackburn captured the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament on the way to the school’s first-ever NCAA bid in any sport. Though the 1996-97 edition of the program is considered one of the weakest teams in an otherwise stellar decade, few teams in Blackburn history have ever accomplished more.
Few teams were also in the right place at the right time more often than the 1996-97 Lady Beavers. The program was at its zenith in the 1990s, as Blackburn ripped off five straight National Small College Athletic Association tournament appearances to open the decade, including a national title in 1993. Along the way, Blackburn collected the first five tournament titles in SLIAC history to complement three regular-season league titles.
By 1995-96, however, it appeared the run was coming to an end. Wracked with losses in the post and hampered by inconsistent play, Blackburn settled for a 10-15 mark, and the cherished tournament title streak crashed to an end with a bitter 55-53 semifinal loss at MacMurray.
A coaching change then ensued as Jim Sexton left after 15 years and 165 victories to begin a lengthy run as an NCAA Division I assistant. He was replaced by Matt Garrett, and Blackburn struggled to adapt to a new system. Still, the Lady Beavers played well enough to remain in conference contention as the 1996-97 campaign progressed.
There was plenty of talent on the floor for Blackburn, as junior college transfer Tonya Cole helped anchor an offense that included fearless shooters Denee Archer and Amanda Kober, sisters Jessica and Erica Davis, rugged frontcourt contributors in Kristi Virden and Angie Watson, gritty swingman Jen Tremeear, speedy guard Steph Holt, and a pair of fan favorites in the Tessmer Twins, Kate and Jayne.
However, many of the top players were relatively new to the program, and replacing the dearth of talent from previous seasons with a new coach proved challenging.
It was a year of transition, to be sure – but it was also a season of unusual events. None, though, were stranger than a trip to Fontbonne for a key late season game. As the team vans drove by Garrett’s apartment in Gillespie, they were stunned to see that fire had damaged the building just hours before. Leaving their shaken coach behind, Blackburn pressed on and never lost focus, pulling out a crucial 74-65 win.
The blaze notwithstanding, the pieces kept falling into place. Blackburn finished second to Greenville in the conference race, but the Panthers, in their second season in the league, were ineligible for the tournament due to their transition to the NCAA. Blackburn then received the top seed and home-court advantage.
The oddities, however, continued. The Lady Beavers’ semifinal game with Westminster was delayed for over an hour and a half as the visitors sat in a traffic jam caused by an accident near the Clark Bridge in Alton.
After nervously killing time in the Beaverdome, Blackburn edged its late-arriving opponents 63-59 to set up a title tilt with MacMurray the next evening.
The women’s game was part of a championship doubleheader in Carlinville on Saturday, March 1, as the Blackburn men, winners of the regular-season SLIAC title, had also advanced to their tournament title game earlier that day.
Indeed, the 1996-97 Blackburn men are also among the most memorable of recent Blackburn teams, with sweet-shooting Travis Wrightsman in his prime and surrounded by such talent as athletic forward Ron Chew, a productive backcourt of Eric Swingler, Ron Hampton, and Jon Ritchie, and the tough post presence of Brett Rogge, Jamie Young, and the late Chad Langheim.
With talent across the board, Blackburn ground its way through the SLIAC and clinched the top spot with a Senior Day blowout of MacMurray. But the Beavers struggled with interior defense in a semifinal win over Westminster and fell 79-75 in overtime to Maryville in the title game, one of the toughest losses for Blackburn athletics in recent memory.
With the fallout from the men’s loss still reverberating in the Beaverdome, the women took the floor in the evening and, as they had all season, shook it off for an 81-80 victory and the program’s sixth tournament title in seven years. Cole was named tournament MVP.
The win came with a new reward – an automatic berth in the Division III tournament. The women became the first Blackburn team in any sport to play in the NCAAs, and though the season ended with a lopsided loss at Wisconsin-Oshkosh in the first round, they had clearly left their mark. Five other Blackburn teams, including the men’s basketball program in 2003 and 2005, have since made it to the NCAA tournament.
But there is always a first, and the 1996-97 Blackburn women’s basketball team holds that distinction in a remarkable – if highly unusual – season that few will ever forget.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.