The Long Run
Looking back on a historic season
- By Andy Gardiner
Twenty years ago, the UVM women’s basketball team opened the 1991-92 season by beating Rhode Island, 75-45, in a game played before a Kingston crowd so small no one bothered to record the attendance. Yet that Catamount victory was a quiet landmark, the first step on a journey that would transform the place of women’s basketball at the University of Vermont.
Vermont marched through that winter stacking victories like cordwood. By mid-January, UVM stood as the only undefeated team in Division I women’s basketball. A season that began with crowds so sparse the university opened only one side of the bleachers at Patrick Gymnasium ended with fans standing for hours in sub-freezing temperatures to buy tickets. Over the course of four months, a program largely unknown in its own community became the darlings of an entire state and part of the national conversation in women’s college basketball. In March, the Cats’ 29-0 record earned an invitation to the NCAA tournament, a first for both the school and the North Atlantic Conference.
Against all odds, Vermont duplicated its undefeated regular season the very next year. But the 1991-92 Catamounts stand alone. They are the benchmark against which all others are measured. Four players and the head coach have been inducted into UVM’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Over the last two decades, the members of that team have forged careers in engineering, accounting, coaching, town government, and college administration.
They have married and become mothers. And beyond even the tight bonds formed among teammates, they have remained close friends and colleagues. The 1991-92 season endures as a touchstone in their lives.
“That group of players was a team. As much as their talent, that was what made them successful,” says their head coach, Cathy Inglese. “To look at them now and see how they have stayed together and how connected they are, that to me is the epitome of coaching success.”
RAISING THE BAR
Inglese had a hard time tempering her excitement as the start of practice approached in fall 1991. In the sixth year of her first head coaching job, she had turned a mediocre program into one of New England’s most promising. UVM had gone 22-7 the previous season, setting a school record for victories before losing to reigning NAC kingpin Maine in the conference tournament finals.
“I thought it could be a breakout year for us,” Inglese says. “We had steadily gotten better, we had a good group coming back and I really liked our chemistry.”
Seniors Missy Kelsen ’92 and Sue Marsland ’92 started in the backcourt, where highly-touted freshmen Carrie LaPine ’95 and Kari Greenbaum ’95 were poised to add quality depth. Sharon Bay ’93 and Sheri Turnbull ’94 gave Vermont a frontcourt tandem that could score and rebound. Junior Jen Niebling ’93 completed the starting lineup. A fierce competitor who could play any position on the court, her personality embodied that of the team’s. These Catamounts had moxie.
Preseason practice unfolded in the same manner as in previous years. Assistant coaches Pam Borton and Keith Cieplicki, both of whom would later lead UVM to the NCAA tournament as head coaches, were extensions of Inglese’s single-minded coaching personality. Practices were intense.
“We were doing everything the same as when I was a freshman— nothing changed,” Marsland says. “We were in the gym at least two-and-a-half hours every day. One of the running jokes was when coach said we were going to have a short practice, it meant two hours and fifteen minutes.”
But the players thrived on Inglese’s demanding approach.
“I think Cathy just challenged us so much every day,” Niebling says. “Practices were so much harder than the games. You just wanted to get through Wednesday, get through Thursday, get through Friday. When Saturday came, it was like ‘whoo-hoo,’ we finally have a game and can get a little break.”
The over-arching goal that fall was to beat Maine and win the conference title. It took a freshman to broaden that vision.
“Cathy would always have us list our goals before the season began and I remember Carrie LaPine asking why we couldn’t put making the NCAA tournament up there on the board,” Turnbull says. “None of us had even thought of that before.”
While LaPine’s question kicked the team’s level of aspiration up a notch, a January run through stiff competition in a tournament at Central Florida made that sense of potential real.
“I remember thinking after we won the Central Florida tournament that we had really taken another step as a team,” Niebling says. “We felt we could be at another level instead of just grinding out game after game. We were just ready to start pounding people.”
“Opening up the bleachers, receiving votes in the national polls, being the only undefeated team in the country—so many things were happening that we hadn’t planned on.”
—Head Coach Cathy Inglese
FILLING THE GYM
The wins kept coming as January ran into February. Vermont cleared a major hurdle when it beat Maine 69-62 in front of a then-record crowd of 1,150 at Patrick. The Catamounts had begun to attract a following.
Malcolm Levanway, a native Vermonter from Essex Junction and a comptroller at Hackett, Valine and MacDonald, had begun attending UVM women’s games in the late 1970s. Suddenly he had company, lots of it. “There had been so few people at games it almost felt as if you were inside the locker room when you sat in the stands,” Levanway recalls. “When they opened the other side of the bleachers it was a momentous day. We felt like we were big-time then.”
The players weren’t quite sure what to make of their newfound fame.
“People were stopping you in the supermarket to talk about the game and know more about the team. Little kids would ask for your autograph,” Turnbull says. “No one had ever done that before, but we embraced it. It was empowering.”
Inglese realized Vermont’s profile was rising with every win but she would not let her team’s focus waver.
“Opening up the bleachers, receiving votes in the national polls, being the only undefeated team in the country—so many things were happening that we hadn’t planned on,” she says. “I remember not talking with the team about winning, only about what they needed to be prepared for a game and be successful.”
On March 1, Vermont beat Boston University, 70-63, to bump its record to 25-0. Sitting in the stands was Linda Bruno, an assistant commissioner in the Big East Conference and a member of the NCAA Division I women’s tournament selection committee. She was there to measure UVM’s worthiness for an at-large bid.
“They had obviously caught the attention of everyone because they were undefeated,” Bruno says.” I don’t care what league you’re in or who you play, going undefeated is a tremendous accomplishment.
“But there weren’t a lot of options (for tournament berths) back then. If Vermont had stumbled somewhere along the way, I’m not sure what would have happened in terms of the NCAA tournament.”
Inglese feared that one false step would, indeed, shatter Vermont’s dream of an NCAA bid. “I never said it to the kids, but if somebody gets sick, something happens, we lose to anybody and we’re not going,” she says.
The Catamounts never faltered. After completing the regular season 26-0, they easily ran through the first two rounds of the NAC Tournament, setting the stage for the championship game against Maine before a record house—a crowd worthy of counting—3,228 in Patrick Gym. On the way to a comfortable twenty-point win, a chant of “N-C-A-A” rose from the bleachers in the game’s closing minutes.
An at-large invitation was still uncertain when the team gathered at Inglese’s house the next day to watch the selection show on ESPN. But the suspense didn’t last long. Vermont was one of the first teams announced in the field, seeded ninth in their region and drawing eighth-seeded George Washington in the opening round.
“I felt such joy,” Inglese says. “We were going to be the first team from our conference to reach the tournament and now we had a chance to play on the national stage.”
But the storybook season would not have a storybook end. Turnbull still has not been able to bring herself to watch the film of Vermont’s loss to George Washington in its NCAA debut.
UVM had bolted to a seventeen-point first half lead only to fall behind by ten in the second half when the Colonials kept pounding the ball inside to their towering center. But the Catamounts rallied and had the ball for the game’s final possession, trailing by a point—then a heartbreaking turnover and GW killed the remaining seconds.
“That was a tough locker room, a lot of sadness,” Turnbull says. “We sat there thinking, what do we do now?”
Two busloads of fans had traveled to Washington, D.C., for the tournament game, and back in Vermont several hundred supporters gathered at Burlington International Airport to greet the team on its return.
“I thought, win or lose, look at what we have accomplished,” Inglese says. “All these people are getting such joy and pleasure out of watching our team. We changed the attitude of what women athletes could do.”
Niebling has given a great deal of thought to the legacy of that team and the bond the players still share. “It was the community’s team and it was great that we shared it with so many people,” she says. “It took an unwavering commitment from a lot of people, starting with Cathy. It didn’t just magically happen.
“But looking back, we had such a level of trust and respect for each other that it became a transformative experience. Maybe it’s a comfort level, maybe it’s a defining-who-you are level, but we have been through so much together that you feel you can just call each other up and it’s still like you’re sisters. I feel very fortunate to be a part of that.”