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Schnepf: Challenge for new coach is bringing D-II success to D-I

Let’s go back a decade when North Dakota State was beginning its move from Division II athletics to Division I. Who, back then, would have guessed that women’s basketball would have the toughest time making the move up?

If you did, people would have labeled you crazy.

You wouldn’t know it now, but NDSU women’s basketball was the crème de la crème of Bison athletics back then. It dominated the 1990s with five Division II national championships. It was led by legendary coach Amy Ruley, who amassed 671 wins during her 29 years at NDSU.

That’s all ancient history.

On Monday, when NDSU announced Penn State assistant coach Maren Walseth as its next head coach, Bison women’s basketball is not what it used to be. It has fallen off the popularity chart faster than Tiger Woods.

So when Walseth is introduced at a Thursday news conference, you can bet she will mention the rich women’s basketball tradition at NDSU. The challenge, of course, is how she proposes to reclaim some of that Division II tradition and produce a winning Division I program.

“Women’s basketball needs to become relevant again,” said NDSU women’s athletic director Lynn Dorn, who way back in 1979 was the one responsible for hiring Ruley.

Dorn’s track record in hiring coaches has been pretty good. She hired Tim Miles, the coach who helped the Bison men’s basketball program navigate the Division I transition. And she has promoted assistants like Ryun Godfrey and Darren Mueller, who have built successful Division I track and softball programs, respectively.

But her last hire, which was announced six years ago nearly to this day, did not turn out so well. When Carolyn DeHoff was introducted as Ruley’s replacement, she told the media that she knows what is needed to run a program at the Division I level.

She did not. Her only winning seasons came during her first two years at NDSU — still relying on some of Ruley’s recruits. DeHoff left NDSU with a 72-104 record.

“I think six years later, we have a better understanding of who we want to refine and redefine our program,” Dorn said, referring to Walseth helping Penn State rebuild its women’s basketball program.

Back in the late 1990s, Walseth — who attended high school at Bloomington (Minn.) Jefferson — was playing AAU summer basketball with Fargo Shanley standout Angie Welle. I mention this because this was about the time when the popularity of AAU ball began to reach even states like North Dakota.

As a result, the dominating NDSU women’s basketball program was beginning to lose its grip on area talent. It can be argued that those national championship teams were much better than any of NDSU’s Division I teams.

After all, they had standouts from North and South Dakota and Minnesota — most of whom never got the chance to show the nation their skills on an AAU team. Players like Pat Smykowski, Nadine Schmidt, Lynette Mund, Darci Steere, Jodi Buck, Lori Roufs and Jen Radermacher may very well have opted for a Division I school had AAU ball been as prevalent as it is now.

This is no slam on Ruley — who was masterful not only at recognizing talented players but being able to bring them to Fargo and molding them into winning teams. The same could not be said for DeHoff, who finished her last season with a 6-23 record– the program’s worst mark since 1977.

That’s how far this program has fallen — so deep that apathy has seeped in, explaining why the average attendance for the Bison women last season was 721. It’s a far cry from the Division II days when 7,000 fans would watch the Bison women play.

That may never happen again. But there is no reason why NDSU cannot have a women’s basketball team do what teams from South Dakota State, South Dakota and North Dakota have done — play in the NCAA tournament.

Walseth must be thinking the same thing.

Kevin Schnepf is the sports editor of the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum News Service.

Kevin Schnepf
Kevin Schnepf is the sports editor for The Forum. He has been working at The Forum since 1986.
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