Friday, September 24, 1999

Norse attitude: 'We want to win, and we're willing to pay the price.'

NKU becomes a multisport power

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In athletics, Northern Kentucky University is no longer The Little School That Could.

        It has quietly become an NCAA Division II powerhouse, winning a school-record four Great Lakes Valley Conference championships last year and reaching the Elite Eight in two sports, volleyball and women's basketball.

        How to top the finest athletic year in school history?

        Well, five of NKU's 13 programs appear a cinch for NCAA tournament play this school year. Two or three are positioned to chase the school's first national championship.

        “The bottom line is, it's an attitude,” Athletic Director Jane Meier said. “We want to win, and we're willing to pay the price.”

        This fall, two teams — volleyball (13-1) and women's soccer (8-0) — both rank No.5 in the nation. Thursday, the women's tennis team (10-0) completed its second consecutive perfect GLVC season, winning 85 of a possible 86 sets this fall.

        Basketball season — both of NKU's teams top the GLVC coaches' polls — is on the horizon. The men's team will likely be ranked among the top two or three in the nation in preseason.

        “Across the board, we want to be the best Division II school in the country,” said Kevin Listerman, a senior on the men's basketball team.

        For the most part, these are homegrown heroics. Seventy-five percent of NKU's athletes are Greater Cincinnatians.

        “That makes it even that much more special,” Mr. Listerman said. “It's like the school and the community being able to take ownership: "These are our girls' or "our boys,' not like, "Here's a guy we got from California' or something.”

        It's a boom time made of modest means. The Norse have a meager $1.8 million annual athletic budget and are last in the 12-team GLVC in scholarship funding, but the program continues steady growth.

        Two sports, women's soccer and women's golf, have been added in the past three years, with others planned for coming seasons. A $30 million multipurpose arena has been proposed, and a climb to Division I is a long-range target.

        It's easy to forget the program's mediocrity a half-decade ago. Few teams were winning league titles or making NCAA tournaments.

        Then men's basketball lit the fuse. Just 12-14 in 1993-94, it stunned the GLVC by winning its first league title in '95, going 25-4. It then reached the national title game the next two seasons.

        “When they started their national runs, other teams here said, "We can do that,'” volleyball coach Mary Biermann said.

        Said Mrs. Meier: “It was a beacon. It gave the others direction, something to aim for.”

        The volleyball team, a hard-luck winner that hadn't reached NCAAs since 1981, made it in 1997. Then it hit the Elite Eight in 1998, and returned all but one starter this season.

        The team is powered by senior stars Jenny Jeremiah (Seton High) and Jenni Long (Princeton), and NKU beat the Nos.3, 4, 9 and 16 teams earlier this season without Ms. Long, who was resting an injured knee.

        “We wanted to give the girls a chance to see if we can play with the big dogs on a national level,” Ms. Biermann said. “We can.”

        While the volleyball team is a veteran crew chasing the NCAA title, the women's soccer players are doing the same — ahead of anyone's schedule. Coach Bob Sheehan has had just two recruiting classes; 14 of the 17 players are freshmen or sophomores.

        Sophomore Betsy Moore (McAuley), with 12 goals, is the star.

        “The important thing is to continue to grow the program,” Mr. Sheehan said. “We're looking to be strong in the long term.”

        Last year, the women's tennis team reached NCAAs for the first time. Behind sophomore Jamie O'Hara, last year's GLVC Player of the Year, it's headed back.

        Men's basketball, though, has the biggest buzz. Four returning starters averaged 12 points or better last year. Mr. Listerman (Covington Catholic) and fellow senior Scott Marston (Oak Hills), both former starters, return after redshirt seasons. Six-foot-10 centers Billy Brewster and Zach Wieber transferred in.

        “We've got five or six guys capa ble of scoring 20 points on any given night,” Mr. Listerman said. “That makes us very deep and very scary. Anything short of a national championship will be a little disappointing.”

        The women's basketball team, which went 30-3 and reached the Final Four, returns all-GLVC stars Michele Tuchfarber (Mount Notre Dame) and Michelle Cottrell (Boone County). Tuchfarber and incoming transfer Heather Livingstone ranked No.1 and 4 in the nation, respectively, in three-point shooting last year.

        “Our goal is definitely to get back to Pine Bluff (Ark.),” said Ms. Tuchfarber, speaking of the Elite Eight site.

        There are other highlights: The men's soccer team is 4-1-1, and junior Tabatha Smith (Dayton High) set the cross country school record of 19:18 last Saturday.

        Is winning contagious? The Norse try to ensure it. The school's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee has a program assigning each team another NKU team to “adopt” by attending games and posting signs of support around campus.

        “Really, we support all the other teams, and they support us,” Ms. Tuchfarber said. “You have a special bond with all the other athletes. I don't think you get that at the Division I level.”

        So let the chase for championships begin and the turnstiles fly. Winning sells.

        “It's great publicity for the university as a whole,” Mr. Listerman said. “People hear about NKU; they're excited; they want to check it out. That's what athletics are supposed to do: promote pride for the university.”


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