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Saturday Morning Quarterback
Mar 26, 2007 12:00 am
Twenty springs ago, I went into my journalism advisor's office and boldly informed him I wouldn't be attending his feature writing class that Thursday.
The reason? MTSU was playing Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament that afternoon.
In the Tuesday class, Dr. Himebaugh told the class a student who would remain unidentified, but then pointed toward me in the front row, would not be in attendance two days hence because of the basketball tournament and if the class preferred, it would not meet that day.
The rest of the class also had either a case of spring fever or March Madness, so class was canceled for that day.
Twenty years later, Cumberland students returning from spring break were pleasantly surprised to learn their Lady Bulldogs were in the NAIA final four. Then, the Lady Dawgs knocked off the nation's No. 1 team, undefeated Vanguard, and suddenly, Cumberland was one win from a national championship.
School president Harvill Eaton, the most enthusiastic cheerleader of a college head administrator I've ever known or known of, called off classes Tuesday afternoon to give students a chance to go to Jackson to support their team.
That's my kind of president.
The Cumberland community turned out in force. But Lambuth had hometown advantage as far as crowd support and, whether that was the reason or not, beat the injury-plagued Lady Bulldogs 63-50.
Afterward, Coach Clint Mason talked about how the bar has been set high and how far the program had come since his arrival.
In the winter of 2003 for reasons still not known publicly, Cumberland's coach unexpectedly quit on the eve of a road trip to Jackson with about a month left in the season. Then-president Charlene Kozy appointed Athletic Director Pat Lawson to coach the Lady Bulldogs' upcoming game at Union. Mitch Walters, who had coached the basketball team for six seasons and was then [as now] serving in an administrative/coaching role with Woody Hunt's baseball team [his official title is faculty athletics representative], was appointed interim coach for the final month.
Following the season, Kozy and Lawson hired Mason, then a young Belmont assistant, to put the pieces back together on a program which went to the national junior college finals in 1983 and had been competitive most years since returning to four-year status in the mid-80s. They had even been to the NAIA National Championships in 1999.
Mason didn't find a program down only in talent. He found one down in the dumps in spirit. With a boyish enthusiasm, Mason pumped up the spirit and, perhaps using the same traits on the recruiting trail, envigorated the talent level.
His first team didn't win much more than the season before, but the attitude was noticeably better to those who bothered to look while Lonnie Thompson's high-flying men were dunking their way to a Sweet 16 appearance in Kansas City.
Even in that first year, the seeds were planted. He started a young 5-10 freshman wing from Spring Hill named C'Kala Humes. He had a 5-4 point guard from Clarksville named Ashley Cross who was originally tabbed as a junior-varsity player. But her quickness, ball-handling, rebounding and all-around grit overcame any shooting deficiencies she had and Mason quickly inserted her in the varsity starting lineup, where over the years she in many ways became the glue to the team. Both started in the national-championship game last Tuesday.
As the years progressed, he added more talent, which boosted the win total. The Lady Bulldogs made the NAIA Tournament his second year, advancing to the Sweet 16. They returned a year later, losing at the buzzer in the first round. Along the way, he picked up 5-11 Renae Williams who brought a consistent outside shot from Oak Ridge. He also took on the cream of the NAIA crop on the recruiting trail, plucking Juliana Fernandes, Tomika Hall and Isabelli Cunico from the same Illinois juco. Fernandes, Cunico and Mariel Ruis [from another junior college] hail from Brazil while Hall is from Jamaica. But they spoke the same language as their U.S.-born teammates on the court.
Then there was this year. With UConn-transfer Kiana Robinson coming in, Mason had high hopes his Lady Bulldogs could break the TranSouth Conference glass ceiling of Trevecca, Freed-Hardeman and two-time national champion Union.
Cumberland opened the TranSouth season with a home win over Union and added another over TSC-newcomer Lambuth, another top-25 team. But the Lady Bulldogs found themselves fifth in what appeared to be a five-deep league. They were good enough to return to Jackson and seeded high enough to win their first-round game, but didn't appear destined to go further.
Seeded third in their eight-team pod, the Lady Bulldogs beat No. 6 Oklahoma Baptist. Then they did what Hunt's baseball Dawgs couldn't do in last June's championship game, knock off Lewis-Clark State, which was ranked No. 2 in the final poll and had just two losses. That put them into the Elite Eight for the first time.
Next up was Langston. Down the Lady Lions went and suddenly, No. 1 Vanguard loomed.
The Lady Bulldogs took it to the Californians, building a big lead behind the shooting of Robinson. The Lions roared back and twice took the lead late in the game as Robinson went down with a torn Achilles' tendon. But Williams shot CU back into the lead and the Lady Dawgs handed Vanguard its first and only loss.
Suddenly, CU, a school which has been in two of the last three NAIA baseball finals [winning one], was in another in a different sport. And the Lady Bulldogs' opponent would be a familiar one, Lambuth, a school which, other than Trevecca, is probably Cumberland's biggest rival.
CU shot out to a 10-2 lead in the championship game. But without Robinson's production and, just as important, her minutes, the other Lady Bulldogs had to spend more time on the floor in Mason's uptempo style. When Kari Maddox, a junior who led Beech High to the TSSAA finals and came to Cumberland after a year out of basketball at Vol State, went down with what appears to be a lower back injury [she has undergone tests but the results haven't come back], the situation was aggravated and Lambuth, a No. 5 seed, won the battle of surprise teams in the final.
But amid the postgame tears was the realization something special had been accomplished. The program had come a long way since that winter's day when it made another trip to Jackson without a head coach.
It was something worth skipping class over.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 17 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.