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Dennis: Trip to tourney first of many for UND programs

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Where sports are concerned, the University of North Dakota is best known as a hockey school. And given the men’s hockey team’s record of seven NCAA Division I national championships, that’s understandable.

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But the 21st century is not going to be a repeat of the 20th, as something that happened last week confirms. Pretty much everybody in the northern valley likely knows what that something is: The UND women’s basketball team won its conference championship and so is going to the Big Dance, the famed NCAA Division I tournament.

And this is the key: “The NCAA bid for the Division I tournament is the first for the program, as well as for the school’s non-hockey sports,” as Forum News Service reporter Tom Miller reported.

Will the women advance a round or more in the bracket of 64 teams? Who knows? But here’s what we do know: Even if the team doesn’t advance, some other women or men’s team from UND will do so, and probably before too many years are out.

Also last week, the UND men’s basketball team came within seven or eight treys of making it to the men’s version of the Final 64. But although the team’s 88-67 loss to Weber State in the Big Sky men’s basketball title game was heartbreaking, UND’s very presence in the championship was a signal, and the signal broadcast that the team had arrived.

So has the university in the world of Division I sports besides hockey.

By the way, the UND women’s team found exactly the right formula this year. It includes not only outstanding coaches and a marquee list of athletes, but also a roster that includes a critical mass of top players from North Dakota.

Winning is vital, as the coaches know. But for a state university, winning with a team salted with homegrown players is inspiring, and it generates a deep and powerful loyalty among North Dakota fans.

Kudos to the coaches for recognizing this and recruiting young women from around the state. Kudos as well for recognizing that North Dakota is churning out national-class basketball talent, such that local players quickly can become outstanding contributors to Division I teams.

It’ll be exciting to watch the women’s team compete in the national spotlight of the Division I tournament. But a big part of the excitement is the knowledge that this thrill ride has just begun.

North Dakota State University showed the way. Right out of the chute, NDSU proved it could compete on a national level, its men’s basketball team going to the Division I tourney in 2009 and making another appearance there this year.

Now, UND’s newest Division I teams are taking strides down that same path. Their advances won’t take away from hockey. That program’s place in UND’s Hall of Champions is permanent and secure.

Instead, the teams will add to the university’s atmosphere, as players and fans take pride in Division I competition across a lineup of sports, not just one. What fun it will be to watch those teams march toward greatness in the years and the decades to come.

Dennis is the opinion editor of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at tdennis@gfherald.com.

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