Just 374 days ago, March 7, 2016, the NIU women's basketball ended its season at Western Michigan in the First Round of the Mid-American Conference.They've surely summoned the echoes, and what I saw of team morale and unit cohesion suggests they'll be hard at work over the summer.
With just nine healthy players suited - one of whom started the game after breaking her toe in the hotel pool the night before doing rehab - the Huskies fell to the Broncos, 94-52, and closed Head Coach Lisa Carlsen's first season with an 11-19 record.
Losing only one starter from that team and returning three seniors to be, the group committed in the offseason, pushing each other in a grueling boot camp competition and organizing team workouts. Little did the 10 returning players from that team realize that it laid the cornerstones for the 2016-17 season through its losses and offseason conditioning, working to #RestoreTheGlory, the team's adopted mantra for Coach Carlsen's second season.
Fast forward to March 16, 2017 and NIU secured its first 20-win campaign in two decades, its first winning season in the last 10 years and its first conference championship game and postseason tournament appearance since 1995.
Battling through adversity and coming together as a team throughout the 2016-17 season, the Huskies closed the year in the First Round of the Women's National Invitational Tournament at South Dakota State, 94-84.
In the postgame radio show, The Voice of the Huskies Bill Baker, who has now called all 10 of the Huskies postseason games since 1990, said in reference to the program's first playoff appearance in over two decades to Carlsen "someone has to take that first step and to that first tournament and that was you in just your second year. Good things will happen when you play the game right and when you win, there's a chance for postseason and championships."They have summoned the echoes. And Chicago area television have been paying attention. Here's a WGN feature on departing team captain, soon to be Lieutenant Ally Lehman.
Carlsen's response was profound, simple and straight to the point.
"When (players) get a taste of all the hard work paying off, I think that's where you build your program into a perennial contender. We want the ability to compete for championships year after year like they have here at South Dakota State. Once you give the kids a taste of that and they understand what that feels like, if you can continue to build that culture, you have the opportunity to continue that year after year.
"I feel like our young kids do understand that and we can continue to develop them with the understanding of 'this is the expectation.' No longer is the expectation to hope and pray to play postseason basketball; (we) work hard enough to deserve that. Hopefully this is a stepping stone that's pushing us in the right direction and is something that we can build on," she said.
The Huskies goal entering the season was to hang a banner from the rafters at the NIU Convocation Center. Through hard work, determination and belief as a group, the 2016-17 NIU women's basketball #RestoredTheGlory, writing a new chapter for the program's success that will live on in the Huskies annals for years to come.
Fair winds and following seas.