Women’s basketball team earns historic berth in its first WNIT

Brian Kimmes

Brian Kimmes

The team had been waiting for the call for three hours. 10:30 p.m. passed, but still no call. Then Head Coach Aaron Johnston’s cell phone vibrated. It’s possible some hearts stopped.

“And then he was shaking his head,” said junior guard Andrea Verdagan. “But I could hear, and I heard that we were in and I just freaked out,”

And with that, the SDSU women’s basketball team earned an invite at the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

On March 12, only three years after making the move to Division-I athletics, SDSU received an at-large bid to the tournament. The women get a first-round bye and will play their first WNIT game on March 17, at 7 p.m. in Frost Arena.

“It’s just a really exciting time, that we can be a transition team and make it into the WNIT, and being the first team actually to be able to do that,” said junior center Courtney Grimsrud.

Receiving a bid to the WNIT this early after moving to D-I is unprecedented and is a special moment for the women’s team.

“To have a chance to get into the postseason for our women, especially this early on in the transition, couldn’t be any better,” said Athletic Director Fred Oien.

When SDSU began to look at moving to D-I, Oien said one of the main criticisms was the idea that SDSU would not be able to compete at the national level anymore, especially with local players from South Dakota, Minnesota and the surrounding states.

“It validates the fact to all future recruits, to our fan base, that this is for real. It can be achieved and that we should look at ourselves in this part of the world as being just as capable as any other part of the country to compete for titles,” he said.

The success of the women’s basketball team this season boosts the entire athletic department, he said. “I think every other athletic director in the country would say if you get one program, or a couple programs … it just raises the level of perception for the whole program. It reflects on all of us that we are a rising program and this is worth investing in as well as participating in,” Oien said.

Coach Johnston said when the basketball team is put into the same category as Missouri, Indiana, Virginia, Virginia Tech and other BCS schools, it helps the entire university.

“That was a big part of this move to Division I. We wanted to be compared nationally and not so much regionally anymore. And this makes people more aware of South Dakota State,” Johnston said.

This historic achievement shines a bright light on the success the women’s basketball program in its short life at the D-I level.

“We’re definitely on the right road, that’s for sure. I think the challenge becomes, can you stay here. … I really think it helps people see we’re going in the right direction. I think that everybody understands you’ve got to stay here at this level. I think success at this level is a very fragile thing. You can have it one year, and not the next. So I think it’s really going to be a motivating factor for our team to help them continue to work hard and stay focused and try and stay on this road,” Johnston said.

The road that Johnston is guiding his team down has led them to host a WNIT game in their first-ever WNIT, creating a buzz for fans.

“It makes it a little more special because now I can feel like a part of it. I don’t have to sit around and watch it on TV, I can be there and have fun,” junior business management major and Jackrabbit fan Chris Hoff said.

Sophomore forward Jen Warkenthien said getting to play at home is a great experience for the entire state. She said it will allow all of the fans that followed the team during the regular season to follow the Jacks in the postseason as well.

Hosting a playoff game is not only exciting for the fans, but to the ball players as well.

“For our team, it’s unbelievable because you’re playing in your home gym, playing in front of your home fans, which our fans are great … I am so thankful for the fans in this community that come to Frost and support us night in and night out. That is truly a special experience,” said senior forward Megan Vogel.

For Vogel, the home game holds extra special meaning. It allows her to extend her Frost Arena career by another game.

“I love this place. I’ve spent, I don’t know how many hours in here, and to get to play in this arena at least one more time, is just unbelievably exciting and truly a blessing,” Vogel said.

Besides adding excitement, the home game may add an additional boost for the women. They lost only one game in Frost Arena all season, compiling a 12-1 record at home.

“Hopefully this home bid will help us out a little bit, having the home crowd,” Grimsrud said.

The SDSU faithful showed their support for the women on March 13 when tickets went on sale. A few die-hard fans lined up an hour early to buy tickets. Within two hours of tickets going on sale, all of the reserved seats were sold. Only general admission tickets remain.

The large crowd at the game will need to survive without one of the main staples at SDSU home games – the cowbell. All cowbells will be confiscated upon entry into the arena due to NCAA rules prohibiting the use of artificial noisemakers when the ball is in play.

#1.883695:3410098577.jpg:sdsuvsusc258.jpg:Women’s basketball Head Coach Aaron Johnston salutes the crowd after a victory earlier this season.:File Photo#1.883694:2196357278.jpg:verdeganinterview.jn.jpg:Junior guard Andrea Verdegan answers media questions March 13 about the phone call and the bid that is making Jackrabbit history.: