Blue Demons Race to BIG EAST 'Triple Crown'
June 11, 2014
CHICAGO – Even though California Chrome could not close out a spectacular bid for a thoroughbred three-peat, DePaul Athletics came roaring down the home stretch to claim a “Triple Crown” of its own.
For the first time since joining the BIG EAST Conference in 2005, the Blue Demons won three league championships in one season.
Women’s basketball claimed the first leg of this Triple Crown by winning both the regular season and BIG EAST tournament titles in March.
Women’s tennis followed up in April in sweeping to the BIG EAST Championship title at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
In May, the Blue Demon softball team completed the championship trifecta by winning the regular season and tournament titles.
Here’s an inside look at how each of these stellar programs brought back the biggest trophy back to Lincoln Park.
Women’s Basketball: Slow Start to Furious Finish
First of all, coach Doug Bruno is a horseracing aficionado with large, framed photos of Secretariat, Rags to Riches and Zenyatta among others in his collection.
It’s no wonder he fancies basketball coaches as the jockeys of their profession, patiently putting players through their paces while knowing when to run them hard and when to ease up on the reins.
When the Blue Demons started off slowly in the regular season, Bruno made adjustments that led to his team winning the Duel in the Desert title in Las Vegas.
After stumbling out of the BIG EAST starting gate, revisiting those earlier adjustments resulted in DePaul finishing out the league season on a 13-1 run. That would become an 18-1 run before falling to No. 15/14 Texas A&M in the NCAA Sweet 16.
Three games marked this as a postseason to remember.
The first was a 65-57 victory over St. John’s for DePaul’s first BIG EAST tournament title. Next was the landmark 104-100 victory over Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament opener which was the highest-scoring game in the history of the NCAA women’s tournament.
That was followed by a 74-65 upset of No. 9/10 Duke on the Blue Devils’ home court, Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“We were kind of like California Chrome coming out of the gate slow, getting our balance and finishing strong,” said Bruno, the BIG EAST Coach of the Year. “After that 2-2 BIG EAST start, we went 18-2 with the only losses at Marquette and to Texas A&M in the NCAA Sweet 16.
“The single most important ingredient in our season was Brittany Hrynko buying into facilitation being as important as scoring. Good players make themselves better but great players make their teammates better.
“In Vegas, Brit had a very good assist-to-turnover ratio. Chanise Jenkins has always had high assists to low turnovers, and now we had two guards achieving that. There was also the consistency of Jasmine Penny as a low-volume shot taker and a high-volume shot maker along with Megan Rogowski becoming a high-volume shot maker.
“But it all comes back to facilitation. Jasmine and Rogo don’t get those shots without two talented guards getting them the ball.”
Hrynko and Penny were honorable mention All-American and All-BIG EAST First Team while Jessica January was named to the BIG EAST All-Freshman Team. Bruno knows the origin of this season’s success.
“What we accomplished this year in the BIG EAST was a culmination of the preparation we went through the last eight years in this conference,” Bruno said. “We were made ready to do this by the great teams in the league such as Connecticut, Notre Dame, Louisville, West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
“It all started last fall with what coach Erin Chastain (NSCAA Northeast Region Coach of the Year) and women’s soccer achieved in finishing second at the BIG EAST tournament. It was fun to be there cheering them on, and that set the stage for everyone else. Nadia Edwards got volleyball off to a terrific start.”
That winning momentum continued through the winter and spring.
“Every time I see Dave Dopek, I see a great coach who was also an NCAA champion, and his men’s track team was second in the BIG EAST. Assistant coach Brandon Murer does an amazing job with the throwers. Betty Kaufmann is as steady as they come and coached the golf team to third in the BIG EAST.
“Eugene Lenti is the dean of DePaul coaches. He has won the most and taken his teams the farthest. Eug and his excellence at DePaul are ever-flowing.”
Bruno believes all the 2013-14 accolades and titles are just the beginning.
“Now our charge is to take the BIG EAST of 2013-14 and make it one of the absolute best leagues in the country,” Bruno said. “We can’t just sit back on our laurels and reflect on what we did this season.
“What happened in 2013-14 has to catapult us to what the BIG EAST can be in the years to come.”
Women’s Tennis: Looking to Build a BIG EAST Dynasty
All it takes is one statistic to demonstrate how much the Blue Demons dominated the BIG EAST. In the league’s regular season and BIG EAST tournament, DePaul only gave up one point.
Put it another way. Coach Mark Ardizzone’s program outscored its conference opponents by a combined score of 40-1.
After securing the second leg of DePaul’s BIG EAST Triple Crown, the women’s tennis team competed in the NCAA tournament and Ana Vladutu became the first Blue Demon in program history to compete in the NCAA Singles Tournament.
“In the new configuration of the BIG EAST, I felt we were the best team,” said Ardizzone, BIG EAST Coach of the Year and Wilson/ITA Midwest Region Coach of the Year. “But there are no guarantees. We did have a target on our back as the hunted. In the past, we were the hunters trying to beat Notre Dame, USF and Louisville.
“Our players handled the pressure very well as the big kid on the block and only gave up one point in the entire BIG EAST regular season and tournament. Our doubles were so impressive at the conference tournament early in the matches. Their domination set the tone. We didn’t have a competitive doubles match throughout the BIG EAST season.
“We are looking to build a legacy and not become a one-year wonder. That comes from continuing to recruit talented student-athletes and attracting quality kids to the program.”
“Our co-captains Patricia and Kelsey were our most consistent players,” Ardizzone said. “Patricia has a knack for rising to the moment. When we got to the BIG EAST tournament, she understood what she needed to do.
“She is our spiritual leader who talks it up and gets everyone going. Kelsey is the quiet organizer who leads by example. Together, they formed a very good captains’ combo.
“We only had six players for most of the year and that didn’t stop them. Zaina Sufi (19-3) and Rebeca Mitrea (21-3) were the only two who didn’t make all-conference (Fargas, Lawson, Vladutu, Jasmin Kling) but they were amazing for us all year long at No. 5 (Sufi) and No. 6 singles. They were also great at doubles going 16-5.”
Ardizzone had a feeling this was going to be a special season.
“We won the BIG EAST because of our talent and the strong chemistry on the team,” Ardizzone said. “I could see it from the beginning---this is a very cohesive unit.
“A little bit of that comes from the kinds of student-athletes we’ve recruited. A big part is the older kids creating an environment of success. I’m not in the dorms or with them off the court.
“They have these rules and team things. Always be early for everything, what to wear for practice and what to wear on the road. We have a saying that everyone has totally bought into: ‘Everything is for the program.’ The players themselves determine what the program is going to be.”
And it is coaches like Bruno, Lenti and Ardizzone who determine what DePaul is going to be in the BIG EAST.
“This Triple Crown shows that the women’s sports at DePaul have done a great job of putting trophies on the shelf,” Ardizzone said. “The men’s sports are right there with golf, men’s track and tennis. More and more, we’re seeing Blue Demon programs rise to the top of the conference. It started last fall when women’s soccer set the tone with their run to the BIG EAST title game.
“Doug Bruno and Eugene Lenti have both been so good for so long and have set the bar extremely high. To be mentioned with them is so humbling.
“But that’s what we strive for---winning conference championships, going to the NCAA tournament every year and becoming a force in the Midwest and nationally.
“I want to be like them.”
Softball: A Runaway Pennant
Leave it to softball coach Eugene Lenti to provide a unique perspective to this DePaul Triple Crown.
“What does it say that women’s basketball, women’s tennis and softball all won BIG EAST titles? It says that you can’t go wrong with three Italian coaches!”
Lenti and his staff were named the BIG EAST Coaching Staff of the Year after going 18-1 in conference play with a 17-game BIG EAST winning streak. The Blue Demons won the regular-season title with a 6½-game bulge over St. John’s and Georgetown (12-8). They captured the BIG EAST tournament with a 9-1, six-inning triumph over Creighton and a 3-0 victory over St. John’s.
DePaul outscored BIG EAST opponents 143-32, outhit them .344-.172 and had a 20-6 advantage in home runs while averaging eight runs per game in league play.
“The biggest thing is that the players bought into what the coaches were selling and connected with our assistant coaches,” Lenti said. “Our pitchers pitched to contact, our defense made the routine plays and the offense strung together hits in a timely fashion. It’s not enough to hit for a high average---you want to score runs with your hits.
“That’s exactly what happened, especially during our 20-game winning streak that began at the end of March.”
Nobody in the BIG EAST came close to matching these Blue Demons.
“Our dominance in the conference was a testament to how hard they worked and how much they were focused,” Lenti said. “Another key factor was the immediate impact of our freshman class. At DePaul, we always look for our freshmen to contribute from the beginning to the end.
“Dylan Christensen was the BIG EAST Rookie of the Year and others like Nicole Pihl made contributions right away. Micah Fitzgerald was on fire before getting hurt. The freshmen are the reason this team had more depth than any other team we’ve had.
“The confidence we developed in the BIG EAST helped us in every other game we played in. The big turning point of our season was beating Notre Dame when they were ranked No. 25 in the country. It said a lot to the coaches and players how good we were and validated our potential.”
Kirsten Verdun ended her illustrious career as the BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year and a second-team NFCA All-American. Mary Connolly was a dominant slugger, the BIG EAST Player of the Year and NFCA All-Region along with Verdun. Verdun, Connolly, Christensen and Megan Coronado were named All-BIG EAST First Team while Allie Braden and Staci Bonezek were All-BIG EAST Second Team.
Lenti provided more insight into DePaul’s Triple Crown.
“It’s not just about the head coaches,” Lenti said. “The strength and conditioning people have done a great job making our athletes faster and stronger. The sports medicine staff did a great job keeping everyone healthy. The assistant coaches kept everyone on the right path. Kate O’Brien and Athletics Academic Advising did a wonderful job.
“It takes an entire athletics department to win a championship. It takes contributions from everywhere.”
Winning three titles in the revamped BIG EAST is simply a starting point.
“It’s our goal every year---same as Doug Bruno and Mark Ardizzone---to win the BIG EAST,” Lenti said. “When women’s basketball and women’s tennis win championships, we want to match what they do. It’s almost like a little competition within DePaul. We want to be out front with them.
“This is only the beginning. Women’s soccer and men’s track came in second and they’re the next ones to win a BIG EAST title. I’m hoping everyone comes along with us.”