By Ben Luli
The COVID-19 pandemic swept across the nation just over a year ago and canceled many endeavours across all forms of entertainment. The first major sports championships canceled were the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments. Admittedly, “March Madness,” as it is often referenced to, is my favorite event during the sports calendar and I was very sad when it was called off last year. However, this year the madness resumes with the men’s and women’s brackets revealed last Sunday and Monday, respectively. Neither Youngstown State University squad made its respective tournaments this year, but during the 1990s the women’s team went on a historic run never seen before or since.
According to the YSU women’s basketball record book, Hall of Fame head coach Ed DiGregorio led the women’s team to three NCAA tournaments in a five-year span. For a program of YSU’s size, this was quite a feat. The Penguins’ first trip to “The Dance” came in 1996 after winning the Mid-Con Conference regular season and tournament titles. It was the team’s second consecutive conference regular-season title, and the first outright title in program history. The Penguins cruised through the Mid-Con tournament by defeating Western Illinois, Troy and Buffalo, all by double figures, to earn their first trip to the NCAA tournament.
YSU was selected as a 15-seed and was matched up with 2-seed Penn State University in the first round. The team held its own against the Nittany Lions for 25 minutes, trailing by only one point. However, YSU’s hopes of pulling the upset faded away after a 19-0 run by Penn State, eventually falling 94-71. YSU ended the season 20-9 overall, including a 14-4 mark in the Mid-Con Conference. Junior Liz Hauger was named first-team all-conference and led the Penguins in scoring with 16.4 points per game.
After missing the tournament in 1998, YSU was hungry for a return trip to “The Dance.” The Penguins won their fourth consecutive Mid-Con Conference regular season title and stormed through the conference tournament defeating Chicago State, Southern Utah and Valparaiso, to earn its second automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. After an impressive 27-2 campaign, YSU earned a 12-seed and drew 5-seed Memphis in the first round. The Penguins pulled off the upset, 91-80, for the program’s first NCAA tournament victory. YSU did not fare as well against 4-seed North Carolina State in the second round, losing 88-61.
The Penguins finished the season with a program-record 28 wins, with a 15-1 mark in the conference and a 16-game winning streak. Four of YSU’s five starters earned all-conference accolades, as Mid-Con Player of the Year Shannon Beach and Ann Marie Martin were named to the first team. Martin led the team with 16.3 points per game while Beach averaged 13.8 points and shot better than 40% from behind the arc. Beach graduated from the same high school I did, so it’s only right I unapologetically plug Waterloo High School of Atwater, Ohio.
The last trip to the NCAA tournament came in 2000, capping off an impressive run by the women’s program. YSU’s streak of five consecutive Mid-Con regular season championships ended but they battled back in the conference tournament. YSU defeated Southern Utah and Western Illinois before meeting Valparaiso in the final, winning 73-57 and punching their ticket to the NCAA tournament. Just like in 1996, YSU was selected as a 15-seed and faced Penn State in the first round. The Nittany Lions defeated the Penguins 83-63, but YSU did etch themselves into the record books by draining a record 12 3-pointers in the loss. YSU finished 22-9 for the season, earning its fifth straight 20-win season. Brianne Kenneally was named the Mid-Con Player of the Year and tournament MVP, leading the Penguins with 18.7 points per game. Three-point specialist Leslie Majewski earned second team all-conference honors after sinking 70 triples.
The 1990s were a golden age of women’s basketball for the university. During the decade, YSU won 196 games, including six 20-win seasons, five of which came in the second half of the decade. They made three NCAA tournaments and won the Mid-Con Conference regular-season title five straight times, from 1996 to 2000.