This article can be found in the Alumni Magazine.

January 10, 2022

An athletic program can’t conjure standards of championship excellence out of thin air. Someone must demonstrate realistic standards. Someone must be the first to achieve greatness. Someone must blaze the trail.

The 1998-99 women’s basketball team seized the role of USF’s trailblazer.

Those Cougars revealed the possibilities. They set standards and goals for subsequent teams—in all sports—to pursue. They raised the bar.

They didn’t win the national championship—losing in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Division II title game—but they changed the level of aspiration. They proved national titles can and should be pursued by USF teams. Since then, women’s basketball (2014), men’s basketball (2010) and football (2016 and 2017) have won titles. Others finished just short. USF always stands as an NAIA contender.

The ’98-’99 women’s team set a standard with on-court excellence and off-court cohesiveness.

“It was just a special group of girls,” said Charity (Richardson) Middleton. “We were all friends, and we spent a lot of time together outside of basketball. We were just a really determined group.”

Bruce Patterson and Larry Westendorf (who died in 2005) served as co-coaches. The players all came from Fort Wayne-area high schools, and several had played together on Amateur Athletic Union teams. Two players started their careers at other schools—Amy (Parrett) Gibbs at Valparaiso and Shannon (Dunbar) Meyers at Ball State—but transferred to become standout players for USF in its memorable ’98-’99 season and beyond. Gibbs was an All-Tournament first-team member during the runner-up season and ranks among the top performers in school history in several categories, including scoring, rebounding, assists and blocked shots.

Brenda (Schlegel) Wagner starred as an unassuming leader. Her name remains all over the USF record book. She holds the career record for points (2,602), ranks second in rebounds, first in field goals made and attempted, first in field goal percentage, first in free throws made and attempted, and first in steals. She was NAIA Kodak All-American in 1999 (the only Division II player on the list) and finished as a four-time NAIA All American. USF retired her number (31) in 2000.

“I never played with a better teammate,” said Melissa (Neu) Bolyn, a sophomore on that team. “As a teammate and a person, Brenda was someone who truly led by example. She was a complete workhorse.”

Other regular players in ’98-’99 included the team’s only senior Julie (Yoder) Taylor, Emily (Patterson) Szaferski, Jennie Thomas, Molly (Meyers) Grasha, Dawn (DePew) Comment, Christy (Glew) Keesy, Brook (Working) Janes, Amber (Colderbank) Penuel and Katie (Parker) Larkins. Assistant coaches included Al Buck and Chris Paul and student assistant coach Kimberly (Hudson) Waugh. Several other players pushed the varsity regulars during daily practices.

“We had talent and we could shoot the basketball,” Bruce Patterson said. “They were a special, very close group. There wasn’t any bickering, no one worrying about ‘getting mine.’ They all did their part.”

The Cougars often overwhelmed opponents with their full-court, pressing, fast-breaking style, achieved through an unselfish approach and a deep bench where coaches could substitute, and the team would not lose a step.

“We had a good overall connection with each other,” Brenda (Schlegel) Wagner said. “We were friends, not only on the court, but off the court. That helped us keep a bond. Our coaches made it fun for us, too. If you love what you’re doing, it makes it even better.”

The women’s program began its ascent to greatness in the mid-1990s and set school records for most wins in four consecutive seasons (20 in ’95-’96, 29 in ’96-’97, 31 in ’97-’98 and 33 in ’98-99). The ’98-’99 team’s total wins stood as the record until the ’13-14 champions finished 38-0 with the national title.

“I feel that (’98-’99) team was a catalyst to Saint Francis becoming a powerhouse in sports,” Emily (Patterson) Szaferski said. “The men’s basketball team was really getting good, too, and the football program was starting. During those two or three years, things just really took off and put the school on the map from an athletic standpoint.”

The ’98-’99 team’s tremendous tournament run included wins over Northland (Wis.), Milligan (Tenn.), Briar Cliff (Iowa) and Central Methodist (Mo.) before an 80-65 loss to Shawnee State in the national championship game. USF finished the season with a 33-5 record.

“Probably the biggest memory was beating Briar Cliff in the Elite Eight,” Charity (Richardson) Middleton said. “They were the home school and their arena had 6,000 people or so and we had our section of parents and supporters. At the end of the game, it was quiet in there except for our little group, which was so loud.”

The USF community support helped drive the players to excellence.

“This team had an unprecedented following and support from family, but also from USF—Sister Elise Kriss (then President), Dr. Rolf Daniel (then Provost) and student support,” Kimberly (Hudson) Waugh said. “The gymnasium was packed for both home and away games—we had a strong following even to Sioux City, Iowa, for the national championship tournament.”

Today, many of the players remain in the Fort Wayne area. The players’ professional careers include healthcare, law, education, psychology, business and real estate. Many are mothers of young athletes who compete, sometimes against each other, in the gyms and athletic fields of Northeast Indiana.

“I love telling my kids how we played at a small school at Fort Wayne and reached the championship,” Shannon (Dunbar) Meyers said. “I feel like we changed the name of Saint Francis with that. They started getting a lot of good local players here with the name we have, and they’ve done some great things since, including winning the championship.”