JACKSON, Tenn. – April 7, 2005 – It was late January when the bottom seemed to fall out.
After starting the season 17-0, including wins over nearly all the top teams in the country, the Union University Lady Bulldogs seemed invincible. They were not.
The first loss of the year came Jan. 20 to Trevecca Nazarene. One week later, another loss – this time to Lyon College. A third loss came the next week to Freed-Hardeman.
Three losses in seven games. Questions, doubts and anxiety followed.
“I think we were all just kind of confused, just trying to figure out what was going on,” said senior forward Stephanie Clark.
“It just hit us by surprise,” senior guard Monica Elliot said. “We weren’t expecting it at all.”
Off the court, frustrations were mounting. Some parents were unhappy with their daughters’ playing time. Some players were having attitude problems of their own.
“From that either you respond to it or you react,” Coach Mark Campbell said. “I think our team responded.”
The Lady Bulldogs rebounded by going 14-2 over the rest of the season and capturing the university’s second NAIA Division I national championship March 22 with a 67-63 win over Oklahoma City.
For Baptists, this year’s women’s basketball season provided a Division I sweep, as Baylor University won the NCAA Division I crown.
For Campbell, in his sixth season as the Union coach, it was his first national title.
And for the Lady Bulldogs, the championship was the culmination of a season filled with high hopes from the beginning.
“Our goal the whole season was to win a national championship – not to win conference, as great as that would be, and not to go undefeated, as great as that would be,” Clark said. “Ultimately what was in our sights was a national championship.”
Campbell recruited this year’s team for that purpose specifically, and some of his decisions initially caught the attention of his returning players. He brought in more guards than some of his players thought were necessary. He added players that he knew would take playing time away from his veterans. He heard about that from parents.
“Everybody’s allowed to be biased towards their own child,” Campbell said. “As a coach, I know that. I knew that was going to be the biggest thing with this year’s team, because we brought in eight players and we lost one player who played last year. One.”
But Campbell convinced his team that the additions were necessary if the Lady Bulldogs were to be serious contenders for the national title. The new players helped contribute to practices filled with intensity, because they all knew they had to earn their time on the floor.
The hard work in practices paid off immediately, as Union opened the season with 17 straight wins, including a 92-70 trouncing of Oklahoma City in a preview of the national championship game. The Lady Bulldogs weren’t really even tested, as their closest game was a four-point win over Berry College. Things couldn’t have been better for the team.
Signs began to emerge, however, that the Lady Bulldogs’ season wouldn’t be problem-free. For one, Paola Ferrari quit the team at Christmas.
“I think ultimately that has some sort of affect on everybody,” Campbell said. “When someone chooses to not be a part, it automatically makes other people more committed. I think that had an impact on our team.”
But a positive impact was not immediate. Campbell noticed a lack on intensity in his team after returning from the Christmas holidays. Although the Lady Bulldogs won their first four games in January, pushing their record to 17-0, they hit a wall that began with their 74-64 loss to Trevecca at home.
“I think everybody tends to relax when things are going good,” Campbell said. “I think we all did that to a certain extent.”
Some of the team’s meetings got emotional as Union struggled through a couple of weeks of uncertainty. Campbell even broke down.
“I don’t want to ever feel like I care more than they do – which is always going to be the case, since it’s my job,” he said. “I think when you care about people it’s important to you. So for me, crying’s never been a big deal. And usually when men cry, girls respond.”
Though confused with what was happening to the team, Clark said the players fought through it.
“We decided we were going to pull together as a team and it wasn’t just going to happen,” she said. “It was going to have to be intentional, every day in practice. It was something that we actually didn’t start doing very well until the end of the season.”
Her battles on the court weren’t the only ones for Clark, the NAIA national Player of the Year who averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds per game. Off the court, Clark faced some spiritual struggles that her teammates and coaches helped pull her through.
That spoke loudly about how much her teammates and coaches cared for her.
“I had some junk going on that wasn’t glorifying to God,” Clark said. “Nothing illegal, but I wasn’t where I needed to be spiritually. Knowing that my coaching staff was praying for me, that I had teammates who were there to support me – that’s the first time I’ve ever been on a team where that happened.”
After losing to Freed-Hardeman on Feb. 5 (the first of three Union losses to the Lady Lions during the season), the Lady Bulldogs started clicking again. They began encouraging each other more in practice. They picked up the intensity they had lost.
“I think the confidence we had in each other on the floor played a big role,” Elliot said.
Amid the frustration of losing the conference title game to Freed-Hardeman, Campbell saw some positive attributes in his team. In fact, he thought it was Union’s best game of the semester. He challenged his team to build on that performance as they prepared for the NAIA national tournament.
“No one remembers what happens in the conference tournament,” he said. “They always remember what happens in March.”
As they did earlier in the season, the Lady Bulldogs responded. They weren’t tested in their first round game against Lubbock Christian University, but they needed overtime to finish off North Georgia College in round two.
After victories in the quarterfinals and semifinals, and edging Oklahoma City in the finals, the Lady Bulldogs could look back and reflect on a completed season -- a season that brought them a national title. A season they will tell their children and grandchildren about for years to come.
“I definitely feel blessed by God to be a part of that,” Clark said. “Not that you’re always going to win and come out successful in the world’s eyes. We’re not here to be patted on the back by other people but to be faithful to our heavenly father.”
For Campbell, the moment in the spotlight is an opportunity to thank God for the blessing.
“I don’t think he cares about us winning a basketball game, but he does require us to glorify him in it,” he said.
Campbell also knows the best part of the season wasn’t necessarily a national title, but the process to get there – and the relationships forged along the way.
“The whole thing that’s success for me is the journey,” he said. “Without the previous six and a half months, it’s impossible to enjoy the last month. A lot of people win championships, but not everybody goes about the journey the right way.”