University of South Dakota women's basketball head coach Chad Lavin has saved his best season for his last one.

Lavin, who's in his 26th year of coaching and 14th at USD, plans to retire at the end of the season. The school record holder for career wins in USD women's basketball history with a record of 271-139, he has guided the program to a 31-1 record, including a record 29 straight wins, and the school's first NCAA Division II Elite Eight appearance in school history.

The Coyotes faced Washburn (KS) (26-6) at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Health and Science Center in Kearney, NE. Lavin and the Coyotes are just three wins away from the school's first national championship.

"That stuff doesn't ever mean a whole lot to me in my old age," said Lavin of the possibility of ending his career as a national champion.

"It just comes back to the players. They're the ones that get it done. Anything they accomplish, I think they deserve.

"If that's what it is, I'll be extremely happy for them. For any coach to be a part of something that you've dreamt about, but very few get to do it."

While Lavin gives credit to his players, second-year graduate assistant Jamie Berry said Lavin deserves praise for the successful team.

"I think his greatest strength is knowing his own players' strength," Berry said. "He plays to their skill set and ability. I've never seen him panic ever. He's calm and reassuring late in the game.

"His motivation is subtle. He doesn't go into long speeches. He keeps it light-hearted and fun."

USD athletic director Joel Nielsen said the university is fortunate to have had a quality coach like Lavin guide the program.

"All you have to do is look at the success Lavin has had as the head coach with the wins and losses," Nielsen said. "He's done a good job with the young ladies that are here now and the ones that have come through this university."

Lavin, a Clear Lake native and USD alum, was a three-year letterman for the Coyote men's basketball team and graduated in 1978 with a B.S. degree in business management.

Upon graduation, Lavin took over the Dell Rapids High School (22-19) basketball program in 1979. He was then a men's basketball assistant coach at Mount Marty from 1981-82. He took over the USD women's basketball program in 1982.

Lavin helped the Coyotes to a four-year record of 82-32 (.719) and three North Central Conference titles. He was also named the North Central Conference Coach of the Year during the 1982-83 and 84-85 seasons.

"When I was first here at USD, we had really good players in a really good league," Lavin said. "We competed well."

After an early run of success at USD, Lavin then took over the University of Wyoming women's basketball program.

Lavin spent 12 years at Wyoming and compiled a record of 175-160. The 1989-90 season was his best at Wyoming as he helped the program go 24-8 to earn High County Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.

"At Wyoming, what helped me as a young coach was to try to win when your players talent-wise probably didn't measure up to a lot of the teams we played," Lavin said. "Your real job as a coach, no matter what you have, is to find a style that fits your team and gives you

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the best chance to win. We had to do that a lot. We had to try and mix and match.

"I'm sure that helped me become a better coach still to this day."

After Lavin left USD, the women's program fell onto hard times. The Coyotes went 150-180 before Lavin returned in 1998.

Lavin and his wife Cindy returned to Vermillion and he took over a program he thought could be successful again.

"We had talked about moving back home," Lavin said. "Our parents were getting older. We had nieces and nephews that were starting to go into high school. We wanted to watch them play. Things just kind of fell in a row."

Nielsen said the spouses of coaches often go unnoticed.

"Cindy's meant a lot to Chad with her support," Nielsen said. "Cindy's been huge with her support and encouragement for Chad and the team."

With the possibility of Lavin guiding the Coyotes to a national championship, just making it to the Elite Eight is an accomplishment for the veteran coach.

Coyote teams under Lavin have fallen short three times in the North Central Regional tournament.

"We actually hosted to go to the Elite Eight in 1984 and we lost on a 25-foot bank shot at the buzzer," Lavin said. "I remember being sick to my stomach for a week. It was a great group of kids, including Katie Dailey and Ann Pancoast. It was a team that was maybe the best team in the country."

The heartbreak of the region championship game was replaced by the image of Lavin cutting down the nets and wearing it as a makeshift necklace after USD defeated Minnesota State-Mankato 61-49 in the DakotaDome last week.

"You can't imagine any person in any profession wanting to cut down the nets and be able to do that in their last year," Nielsen said. "You can't imagine anything better. Very few have or ever will be able to go out of a program like that."

Despite chants from the USD student section of "one more year" for Lavin after the win, he said he's still going to retire.

"I've had this on my mind for quite a while," Lavin said. "You appreciate what the boys did. Mostly it was students of mine, teammates that I play baseball in the summer with and my two nephews (Brooks and Dustin Little).

"You appreciate that, but this is it for me. I wanted this to be my last year."

In his final year, the Coyotes have embodied Lavin's never-say-die spirit and hatred to lose.

"I don't think this team would ever be happy losing a game," Lavin said. "It doesn't matter where we're playing. We could be playing a pick-up game in the old Yankton College gym. These kids would be upset if they lost."

Whenever the season ends, Lavin said he plans to remain in Vermillion and give private basketball lessons while continuing his hobbies of golfing and playing baseball.

But while he moves forward, the door behind him may be left open just a bit.

"In 30 years, it just seemed like a good time," Lavin said. "If for some reason I really miss it, I'm not that old that I couldn't come back."

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