On a Mission: ’97 – ’98 Penguins Aimed For Redemption (Part 1)
It’s a late weekday evening in mid-January and Edie DiGregorio, the wife of legendary Penguins women’s basketball coach Ed DiGregorio, answers her house phone. When asked, she puts her husband — 87-years-old, yet still sharp-minded — on the line.
Throughout an eight-minute interview, the former Youngstown State University head coach of 20 years digs deep into his memories of leading the Penguins from 1983-2003.
He recalls many of his former players, taking pride in their past accomplishments. He raves about friends and basketball coaching icons Pat Summit and the recently-deceased Kay Yow.
And he also lends what he considers his most valuable advice: “Remember, always be positive. Have confidence in what you’re doing and you’ll be successful.”
But before any of this, the man known as “Coach D” responds quickly — almost in an interrupting manner — when asked about his 1997-1998 YSU women’s basketball team.
“That was a special group,” DiGregorio said.
The Penguins featured seven future members of the YSU Athletics Hall of Fame — Caroline McCombs, Shannon Beach, Ann Marie Martin, Colleen Cook, Leslie Majewski, Brianne Kenneally and DiGregorio — as they captured a 28-3 record.
Even more, they became the first and still-only YSU basketball team in school history to capture an NCAA Tournament victory.
“They were a phenomenal group,” DiGregorio said. “You go 28-3 in a year, that’s nearly impossible.”
But they did just that. Coach D and the five senior starters — McCombs, Beach, Martin, Cook and Teresita Jones — took time recently to remember the historic season from start to finish.
Here’s Part I of their journey.
YSU entered the 1997-1998 season with five senior starters, tabbed by the local media as the ‘Fab Five.’ The Penguins reached the 1996 NCAA Tournament as a 15-seed and lost to Penn State in the first round. Disappointingly, YSU missed the 1997 Big Dance despite going 23-6, falling in the Mid-Continent Conference tournament championship.
Cook: When we lost in the conference tournament in ’97, that’s what fueled us.
Martin: That just made us work extra hard. I remember the summer of our senior year, we all stayed on campus — the five seniors — and we just worked every single day and went into the gym on our own.
McCombs: We were young in ‘96 when we made it there. And once you get to the NCAA Tournament, you feel like there’s no turning back. It’s what we were trying to accomplish from there on out.
Beach: I know as seniors, since we were called the ‘Fab Five’ and we lived with each other for four years, we didn’t want to taste that disappointment of ‘97 again.
However, YSU hit a bump in its first game of the season, losing at home to Bowling Green State University, 81-72.
Martin: Coming in we thought, ‘Oh we’re gonna be really good this year.’ But after losing that first game, it was like ‘Woah, wait a second.’
Beach: Losing early on hit us pretty hard because it took us back to our last loss of the ‘97 season. So that stung us a little bit and knocked us down a peg. It really fueled that 16-game winning streak.
Following the loss, the Penguins won 16-straight games from Nov. 16-Jan. 19. The streak included winning the UNLV Tournament in Las Vegas, Nev. in early December, as YSU defeated Xavier University and the host Rebels.
Jones: We gelled so well together and we really just refused to lose at that point in our careers. That just made us believe it was our year.
Martin: [Vegas] was a great trip — we still talk about it when we get together. That trip really brought us together because we were away from everybody and we had that camaraderie.
McCombs: To go out there and knock off teams that we weren’t supposed to beat just brings the team a little bit closer together and gets you ready for tournament play.
DiGregorio: We had two young ladies on the bench — a freshman and sophomore — that were phenomenal players: Brianne Kenneally and Leslie Majewski. We had a good bench with that team. We lost Shannon Beach with a knee injury for a little, and Leslie and Brianne picked up the slack.
Cook: Coach D just really put it on us and said ‘Come on, this is it.’ We kind of got refocused at that point and we didn’t want anyone to get in our way.
After Valparaiso University ended the streak on Jan. 24, YSU closed the regular season with eight-straight victories. The Penguins then ran through the Mid-Con Conference tourney, winning three more games and defeating Valpo in the championship to punch their ticket to the 1998 NCAA Tournament.
Beach: We weren’t gonna lose for anything. It wasn’t a part of our vocabulary at all. Any of us would have sacrificed our bodies — and some of us did — just to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Jones: Coach had us ready and we felt like this was it for us. It wasn’t what others could do to beat us, it was as long as we didn’t beat ourselves. And we didn’t think anyone in our conference could beat us that year.
DiGregorio: Once they crossed that line and heard the whistle, they knew exactly what the preparation was for that day. They used to always say ‘Coach, do we have to keep doing this same thing?’ and I’d say ‘Young ladies, do we have it down perfect?’ and they’d say ‘No we don’t.’ So that’s why we were doing it over and over until nobody could stop us.
Cook: We were certainly ready to go back to the NCAA Tournament and prove that we were a contender and one of the best teams in the country.
“On a Mission” will continue in Thursday’s issue of The Jambar with Part II.