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New Leadership Looms As Coyotes Aim High
The University of South Dakota’s second year outside NCAA Division II was as different from the first year as the first was from all those decades as a North Central Conference school.
The hectic up-and-down nature of the independent scheduling of 2008-09 was gone in most instances, replaced with a semi-regular dose of Great West Conference competitions.
Though USD will move away from the far-flung Great West - a conference departed athletic director Joel Nielsen played a huge role in creating - to the Summit League in all sports except football after next season, it would be hard to imagine what life for the Coyotes would have been like this year without the Great West.
1. New leadership for athletic department
This spring Nielsen, whose leadership the school depended on during the debate and decision to become a Division I school, was named athletic director at Kent State, an established Division I institution with a bowl-eligible football program.
When Nielsen took the job at USD seven years ago, Division I was looming in the background at a school that had seen longtime geographic rivals North Dakota State and South Dakota State move up and away from the USD athletic programs.
With the demise of the NCC hastening the decision to follow the Jacks and the Bison, Nielsen, in company with president Jim Abbott, presided over the series of dramatic actions that followed. Still two years from being a full-fledged Division I program, USD heads into the summer of 2010 searching for a new leader at a critical juncture in its history.
2. Coyote men’s hoops close the deal
The men’s basketball team was the preseason pick to win the first-ever Great West title, then went about delivering on that with a 13-game win streak - the second-highest in the nation in Division I at the time - that gave the Coyotes both the regular-season and Great West tournament titles. It was the seventh consecutive time that USD coach Dave Boots guided his team to 20 wins on a season.
Senior Tyler Cain was the Great West MVP, Roman Gentry was also a first-team selection and Kendall Cutler was named the tournament MVP. By winning the Great West tournament title, the Coyotes got an automatic berth in the Collegeinsider.com tournament, where they lost to Creighton in Omaha, ending a win streak that was packed with games determined in the last seconds.
Just prior to the conference season, the Coyotes played host to Cornell, staying with the Sweet 16 team until the final moments in a 71-65 loss.
3. Football season features close calls
The Coyote football program made progress in its ability to compete against FCS foes while at the same time seeing a series of wicked end-game circumstances go the wrong way.
The Coyotes, who finished the year 5-5, lost overtime games to UC-Davis and Montana State and another to Northern Colorado, in which they led with three minutes to go.
The highlight during a season where defensive tackle Ko Quaye earned All-America honors and quarterback Noah Shepard left with nearly every signal-caller record in school history was a wild 50-48 road win over Cal Poly in the last game of the season. Lowlights were a 66-7 slaughter at the hands of Northern Iowa and a disappointing showing at UND.
4. Resuming the rivalry with ’school up north’
The Coyotes resumed their rivalry in women’s basketball with the Jackrabbits, who would end up being one of five USD opponents to qualify for the NCAA tournament. SDSU posted a 67-48 win at Frost Arena.
Though the teams will not play this coming year, regular-season contests will resume in 2011-12 with USD’s inclusion in the Summit League.
The Coyotes were 6-6 in the Great West Conference, struggling at times to find consistent scoring punch. The highlight was a 72-57 pounding of league champ North Dakota in Grand Forks in January.
The lowlight was the overtime loss that came less than a week later to a Houston Baptist team that would end up 3-25 with a 1-11 league record. After the season, assistant coach Allison Kruger left the program to take the head coaching job at Southwest Minnesota State and was replaced on the staff by all-time Coyote great Mandy Koupal.
5. Track programs earn indoor title sweep
Without a doubt, the feel-good highlight of the year for the men’s and women’s track teams was taking indoor Great West titles at the DakotaDome. Both the men’s and women’s teams would finish second to Utah Valley University in the outdoor meet this spring in Yankton, but pulled off tandem upsets of the Cougars at the indoor meet in February.
Senior Ramsey Fitzsimmons, perhaps the top distance runner in USD history, was named the indoor athlete of the year, and Rob Gregoire earned the same honor for the men.
The Coyote outdoor teams finished their NCAA transitional status as the designated fast-tracked programs within the athletic department.
Beginning next year, both men’s and women’s athletes will be eligible for regional and national events.
By Mick Garry, Argus Leader