DePaul's Greatest Season Nets Six BIG EAST Titles
Sept. 18, 2017
CHICAGO – There’s no better way to commemorate a new school year than taking a deeper look into the greatest season in DePaul athletics history.
The Blue Demons soared to BIG EAST titles in women’s soccer, women’s basketball, men’s indoor track and field, women’s tennis, men’s outdoor track and field and softball in 2016-17. DePaul had never before captured six conference championships in one season, and led the league in titles per sports played.
Setting the bar even higher, the Blue Demons topped the BIG EAST with eight Team Academic Excellence Awards as women’s basketball, women’s cross country, women’s indoor track and field plus women’s outdoor track and field, men’s soccer, softball, women’s tennis and volleyball recorded the highest team GPAs in their respective sports.
It was the seventh year in a row DePaul has won the BIG EAST academic title.
“With eight academic champions and six BIG EAST titles, that’s a total of 14 making us the dominant athletics program in the BIG EAST on and off the field,” said softball coach Eugene Lenti.
Little did women’s soccer coach Erin Chastain dream that her program’s BIG EAST regular-season title last fall would be just the opening act in an unprecedented 10-month run that would see the Blue Demons win five more conference titles.
“We know we are the first sport that kicks off at DePaul and try to set the tone every year,” Chastain said. “There is some pressure on us, but our team embraces that pressure and always represents DePaul in a positive way on and off the field.
“By winning six titles, we are fulfilling Jeanne’s mission for athletics.”
Jeanne is athletics director Jean Lenti Ponsetto who has devoted her life to providing a memorable collegiate experience for all of her student-athletes. No one could have been happier after last season’s BIG EAST dominance.
“I am so proud of our student-athletes, coaches and athletics staff for winning six BIG EAST and eight academic titles,” Ponsetto said. “A majority of the credit goes to our student-athletes, and we had outstanding leadership in a variety of sports. The student-athletes’ pride, dedication and affinity for DePaul drove them to unparalleled heights.
“At the beginning of the season, I talked about making 2016-17 really a special year for Father Dennis Holtschneider in his last year as university president. I had no idea what was in store, and now, I couldn’t be more proud of every student-athlete and coach who stepped up to such a high level in representing DePaul.”
After opening the 2016 campaign with a 1-4-2 record, Chastain’s side turned the season around with a seven-game winning streak that included its first five conference matches. The team finished 7-2-0 in conference and shared the regular-season title with Georgetown.
“Every year, we believe our student-athletes can accomplish amazing things,” Chastain said. “Every season is different and the players change, but our goals remain the same---winning the conference title and advancing to the NCAA tournament.
“Getting to that next level for us is about senior leadership. It’s a good sign whenever our program is run by the seniors. Anytime we have a really good year, it can be attributed to the chemistry, work rate and leadership of our senior class.
That sentiment was echoed by women’s tennis coach Mark Ardizzone.
“To me, it all starts with coach Bruno,” Ardizzone said. “He sets the tone and we’re all just following his lead. It is his overwhelming success and the way he relates to every coach in the building. His teams achieve no matter what.
“I’ll never forget what coach Bruno did six years ago when a rash of injuries left him with seven healthy players. He called them ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and they won 23 games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Second Round.
“He is the best coach I have ever been around.”
Winning a single BIG EAST regular-season title is tough enough. Imagine the degree of difficulty winning four in a row.
That’s what Bruno’s program accomplished after a 16-2 mark earned a share of the league title with Creighton in a season that saw the Blue Demons take off on a stretch of winning 16 of 17 games including 10-straight.
These Blue Demons made their 15th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, advancing to the second round where they fell to eventual NCAA runner-up Mississippi State. The 27-8 record marked the 20th straight time they have recorded a 20-win season.
When that 20-win streak began, Bill Clinton was President.
“The BIG EAST is one of the absolute best conferences in the country, and to win a BIG EAST Championship, you’ve earned it,” Bruno said. “Six BIG EAST titles is a testament to the comprehensive excellence of DePaul that Jeanne with support from former DePaul President Dennis H. Holtschneider and current President Gabriel Esteban have put together.
“Jeanne hires great coaches as the leader of our coaching staff. Every day, every Blue Demon coach gets to work shoulder-to-shoulder with other standout coaches in every sport. You’re talking about BIG EAST title coaches Eugene Lenti, Erin Chastain, Mark Ardizzone and Dave Dopek and all of their talented and inspirational colleagues coaching other teams.”
To what does he attribute his BIG EAST success?
“You can’t win a conference championship without acknowledging outstanding assistant coaches, the support staff and most important, the student-athletes,” Bruno said. “They have an inner strength composed of heart, head and guts that translates into winning a conference title.
“They carry over that same strength up the middle into academics. These student-athletes compete in the class room every bit as hard as they do in their sport. For them, winning an academic championship has every bit as much priority as winning an athletic championship.”
Men’s Indoor Track and Field
There’s no better example of a contagious championship feeling than track and field. The men’s indoor team won its conference meet just 24 hours before women’s basketball claimed the regular-season title. Men’s outdoor track and field were proclaimed BIG EAST champion a mere seven minutes before softball won the BIG EAST tournament.
Men’s track and field won its first two titles in program history, prompting Ardizzone to remark: “I was really happy for some of the coaches---the ones who got their first title. Someone like Dave Dopek who is here day and night, I know how hard they work.”
Clutch performances down the stretch helped the Blue Demons secure the 2017 BIG EAST Indoor Track & Field Championship on Feb. 25 in Staten Island, N.Y. DePaul won the men’s title with a final team score of 146, beating out Marquette (135) and Butler (128).
Trevor Kintyhtt was named the Men's Most Outstanding Performer in Field Events after winning the weight throw and placing second in the shot put.
“It was nice to see all these DePaul teams showcase what we’re capable of accomplishing,” Dopek said. “Six BIG EAST titles is pretty substantial and exciting. They say winning is contagious, and we all caught it.
“We won those six titles with a backdrop of our athletic department having nearly a 3.5 cumulative grade-point average. To say that almost half our teams won conference titles speaks to the type of student-athlete that is attracted to our university.”
Keisha Clousing’s closing act in the dramatic final match of the BIG EAST Women’s Tennis Championship at Cayce, S.C. set off a wild celebration scene after a come-from-behind victory over St. John’s thanks to her 6-4, 7-5 result.
Teammate Ana Vladutu had just won her match against top-seeded BIG EAST Championship favorite St. John’s on April 30 to deadlock the title showdown at 3-3. Everything, including an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, came down to Clousing.
“After match point, I remember all the girls running over and jumping on me,” Clousing said. “I got the chills. We were not expected to win it this year, and we fought through so much adversity. We were all embracing each other---it was such an amazing feeling.
“It’s so great to have that emotion with everyone, there’s nothing like it. This was a forever memory.”
It was also the third time in four years that DePaul has reigned supreme in BIG EAST women’s tennis while also advancing to the NCAA tournament.
“This was all about raising the bar,” Ardizzone said. “A number of DePaul programs are so close to winning a title. All that’s needed is something extra to get you over that hurdle.
“All of us coaches want so badly to succeed. It takes that something extra to reach the next level. Each coach has to find that. Maybe it’s putting in extra hours in the office. Maybe it’s devoting that extra effort in recruiting. Maybe it’s extra work with your players. Every coach has to find that extra something.”
Ardizzone’s winning formula centers around never resting on your laurels.
“You can never be satisfied,” he said. “I don’t think about last year---ever. Every year is a new challenge, a different journey. We have to prove ourselves all over again, and I try to place a chip on our shoulders. I want each group to feel what it’s like to win a conference title and advance to the NCAA tournament.”
After last year’s milestone season, what can Blue Demon athletics do for an encore?
“It would be fun for every DePaul team to win a title one year,” Ardizzone said. “I know that’s getting greedy, but there’s no use shooting for less.”
Men’s Outdoor Track and Field
Just what Ardizzone is so vigilant about seeped into the track and field program last spring.
“That extra thing Mark described came about after we recruited a lot of quality talent and assembled a team of high-character athletes dedicated to working together,” Dopek said. “The indoor title was a result of the best class of seniors providing leadership and a chemistry with the young guys meshing with our seniors.
“But after we won the indoor meet, there was a natural leveling off from expending all that emotional energy doing something we didn’t think we could do. It affected me, too.
“Midway through the outdoor season after an underwhelming performance in California, we had a meeting where I made it clear that is not going to get it done and that is not going to represent us. The next two weeks we woke up from that slumber and you started to see the foundation of that championship indoor team.”
DePaul won the BIG EAST Outdoor Track and Field Championships May 13 at Villanova after securing 204 team points over 22 events to outdistance Marquette's 183 points. Sebastian Feyersinger was named the Co-Most Outstanding Track Performer and Trevor Kintyhtt was a unanimous choice for the Most Outstanding Field Performer.
“Kids want to win, and sometimes they don’t know what it takes to win,” Dopek said. “With the indoor title, they didn’t know how to win. Then they won, and they didn’t know how to celebrate.
“When they won outdoor, they let loose. There was the Gatorade dump, a lot of hooting and hollering and an extra-long and boisterous victory lap. It was like they were celebrating the indoor and outdoor titles at the same time.”
There will be more of these celebrations as Dopek revealed DePaul’s secret for sustaining success.
“We want to bring in athletically talented people who are academically motivated,” Dopek said. “Even more important, our recruits must prove to us they have high character. It was evident last year our kids had the upbringing to act right and navigate the waters of being a Division I student-athlete in a global city.
“That’s not an easy thing. Yet, to a large degree, we aced it last year.
“In a way, that is our niche---high character. That attribute enables our student-athletes to compete at the national level and leads to continued success after they graduate.”
What can track and field do for an encore?
“I want the men to hold serve and the women to win a title,” Dopek said. “We are integrating some talented newcomers into the program to win another men’s title and get the ladies on the podium. I feel good about the women’s team this year, and we could have a championship team the following year.
“It would be an amazing feeling for us to one day soon win both the men’s and women’s titles.”
Big-time clutch hitting from Haydn Christensen, Alysia Rodriguez and Sabrina Kuchta propelled these Blue Demons to an 8-3 win over St. John’s May 13 in the BIG EAST tournament title game at the Ballpark At Rosemont.
It sent Lenti’s team onto the NCAA tournament after claiming its third BIG EAST tournament title in school history.
“Our softball team came into the season without any pitching depth,” Lenti said. “We had a good conference regular season and wound up in third.
Our pitching kept getting better throughout the BIG EAST season and just as we had planned, it peaked at the right time. We won the BIG EAST tournament behind freshman ace Missy Zoch who was the league’s best pitcher in the regular season and in the tournament.”
That put the finishing touch on DePaul’s greatest season.
“It demonstrates DePaul’s commitment to athletics and makes you realize the experience student-athletes have here is second to none,” Lenti said. “There are opportunities like the Vincentian Heritage trip to France. The facilities and equipment are top-notch. The staff is top-notch. Our programs are fully funded which allows us to be successful in the BIG EAST and the NCAA.
“All of extends to the class room. DePaul was the BIG EAST team academic champion for the seventh year in a row as eight of our programs won a Team Academic Excellence Award signifying the highest team GPA in their sport.”
A new school year has DePaul setting its sights even higher.
“Every Blue Demon program is inspired by seeing what it takes for other programs to win a championship,” Lenti said. “There’s a fun and friendly rivalry among the coaches. You see one team win it and you want to do it, too.
“We want to win as many regular-season and tournament titles as we can. We need new teams to add on to our six from last season. It’s important for us to continue motivating each other and bringing back more BIG EAST championships to DePaul.”
Anyone for seven in 2017-18?
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