Indiana Daily Student

Bennett transforms D-III team

Part four of a five part series profiling IU women's basketball coach Kathi Bennett.\nWhen coach Kathi Bennett took over the women's basketball program at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, she inherited a team that had never appeared in an NCAA Division III tournament game. \nIn the 14 years the program existed before Bennett, the team never won a conference title.\nThe Lady Titans had been successful, with a .650 winning percentage. But they weren't able to make that jump to postseason play.\nIn the seven years Bennett coached Wisconsin-Oshkosh, her teams won 82.9 percent of their games, five conference titles, made six NCAA tournament appearances, won a NCAA Division III Championship and 31 straight games, leading to an unblemished season.\n"There's no doubt I've learned from one of the best," said Pam Ruder, who was an assistant under Bennett at Oshkosh and is now entering her fifth year as head coach there. "I'd be stupid to alter too much of what she put in place here, because her philosophy works. We're continuing the same defensive style and intensity that she put into place here." \n Through recruiting and defensive intensity, Bennett's team got steadily better at Oshkosh. The senior class that won the national championship in 1996 didn't make the NCAA Tournament its freshman year.\n Its sophomore year, the team progressed to the Elite 8, and in its junior season, the Lady Titans lost in the National Championship game to Capital College, 59-55. For Bennett, everything was building to 1996.\nIt almost climaxed without her.\nAfter falling one win short of the Division III national crown in 1995, Bennett lobbied for a Division I coaching job at Northern Iowa, which had a vacancy.\n"I pursued Northern Iowa very hard and really wanted that job, and I didn't get it," Bennett said. "It wasn't meant to be, and I'm so thankful because of the experiences in 1996." \nThe magical year of 1996 ended up with the Lady Titans 31-0 and National Champions, but it could have easily gone south in the very beginning. Oshkosh's first game was against St. Thomas, a Minnesota school perennially at the top of Division III women's basketball. \nSt. Thomas won the 1991 National Championship and owns the third most NCAA wins in all of Division III basketball.\n"Our first game in our tournament, wow, that was neat," Bennett said. "And we beat them by more than people thought we would -- like 10 or 11. And one of our best players didn't play well that game. Wendy Wangerin did not have a good tournament at all."\nWangerin, who was an All-American center for the Lady Titans in 1996, didn't have a particularly good game in the NCAA title game against Mount Union either, Ruder said. \nIt was solid backcourt play from Shelley Dietz that gave the Lady Titans a 66-50 win against Mt. Union.\n"I can't say enough about her," Dietz said. "She brings out the best of you...and I'm so thankful for that."\nDespite Wangerin's struggles, Bennett had numerous other options to choose from, including Deitz, on one of the most balanced teams she has ever coached.\n"We were so balanced," Bennett said. "That was probably one of the better Division III teams."\nAnd it was the last time she'd coach one. Within days of winning the national crown, Bennett was fielding offers from Division I schools. With the women's Final Four a week after the Division III title game, Ruder knew by then Bennett would most likely not be back at Oshkosh.\nAnd soon thereafter, Bennett was announced as the new women's basketball coach at the University of Evansville.\n"It was time for her to coach on the D-1 level," Ruder said. "She'd accomplished everything she wanted to here and wanted to get to go to a different level of play and try and accomplish the same things there."\nBennett, who never is afraid to say she's an intense competitor, said she was ready to move to a higher level and coach a Division-I program. For Bennett, leaving Oshkosh -- a program she put on the map -- was difficult, but the decision was easier knowing Ruder would stay behind and continue teaching the same philosophy.\nIt also helped to leave on such a positive note, she said.\n"You always want to leave a program in better shape than when you came," Bennett said. "That's very important to me."\nLooking Ahead: D-1 Bound\n• Kathi Bennett never had a \nlosing season in her eight years as coach for two different programs. But when she moved to D-1 program in Evansville, things began disastrously. In two years, her team had gone 9-43. But the Purple Aces bought into Bennett's system in the third year and rode her defensive pressure all the way to the NCAA tournament. For more, read Friday's IDS.

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