Three seasons ago, the Valley City State women's basketball program hit a low point, losing 23 games and going winless in the conference.
"You just never want it to happen again," said Valley City State senior Jacklyn Mitchell, then a freshman on that 23-loss team. "It's kind of embarrassing."
Things are much better these days for the Vikings, who are in the midst of their best season. The Vikings have won a program-record 23 games and are headed to the national tournament for the first time after winning the Dakota Athletic Conference tournament last week.
"Teams come in and try to leave a legacy and I think this group has set the bar high for teams here at Valley City State," said Valley City State head coach Jill DeVries, a former North Dakota State standout player. "They have done all they could to leave their legacy."
The Vikings (23-8) can add to that legacy at 9:15 p.m. today when they play Sterling (Kansas) College (26-5) in the opening round of the NAIA Division II tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.
"For sure, it makes it all that much sweeter," said Mitchell, from Erie, N.D. "It's the perfect Cinderella story, coming from the bottom to the top."
After the 23-loss season in 2007-08, DeVries said she held a 90-minute team meeting where "cultural changes" in the program were made. DeVries said there was "some shouting and anger and tears shed" during that session.
"By doing that, it set the bar high for expectations on and off the court," said DeVries, who is in the Bison Athletic Hall of Fame. "Some players bought in and they're seniors that are going to be playing in the national tournament and other kids didn't."
The Vikings won 17 games in the two seasons after the 23-loss campaign. That helped set the stage for this season's historic run.
"This is a special group of kids both on and off the court," DeVries said.
"Nobody cares who gets the job done as long as we get the job done."
DeVries said adding Ryan Bomstad, who is in his third year, as a full-time assistant has helped the program move forward.
DeVries said the team has also upgraded its talent during the turnaround. The Vikings added two transfers prior to this season, Kristin Bearstail and Mandi Bindas, both juniors.
Bindas said the senior class has been the driving force behind this team's success.
"They knew what it takes," said Bindas, from Oxbow, N.D. "I think they took the team under their wings and brought us all together. We all had the same goals."
Amanda Brown, Mandy Johnson, Jenna Vrchota (who had a season-ending knee injury in preseason practice) and Mitchell are the four seniors who were on that 23-loss team.
Senior guard Caitlyn Wojahn joined the team as a sophomore. Student assistant coach Abby Rittenhouse would be a senior, but a concussion cut her career one year short. Rittenhouse, a St. Cloud State transfer, led the team in scoring and rebounding the past two seasons.
"When we lost Abby that kind of made us wonder what was going to happen to us this season," Mitchell said. "We really had to buckle down and work twice as hard without her."
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