Elite Coyote women’s team welcomed home

Elite Coyote women's team welcomed home
There was a biting chill in the air Sunday afternoon, but the more than 250 people who stood outside the front doors of the DakotaDome in Vermillion didn't mind.

They knew that briefly enduring a bit of discomfort was the least they could do to show their appreciation to The University of South Dakota Coyotes women's basketball team.

The team's bus arrived shortly after 3 p.m. Sunday, escorted into the city by law enforcement vehicles from the city police, county sheriff and USD public safety departments.

Coach Chad Lavin, the first to exit the bus, humbly bowed his head and waved to the applauding crowd.

Lavin and the Coyote players were greeted by supporters, students, fans, family members and Charlie Coyote.

"I just would like to thank you fans," Lavin said. "I think you'll all agree with me when I say these ladies took us on one hell of a ride."

Although the team's 63-58 loss to Northern Kentucky in the D-II title game in Kearney, NE came short of USD's ultimate goal, it still brought national attention to a team that put together the best season in school history.

"We accomplished amazing things this year," Lavin said after addressing the crowd. "Maybe in a few days – it (the loss) is a little tough on them right now, but I think they'll understand just what a great year it was."

The retiring coach couldn't have been more pleased after seeing a crowd of well-wishers waiting to greet his players home.

"They deserve this; this is great for them, and I can't thank the people enough," he said. "It's freezing out here today, and we've got a load of people here, and that's just wonderful."

It was evident, in a post-game press conference following the Coyote's loss to Northern Kentucky, that the USD team was both physically and emotionally drained by the experience.

Senior Ashley Robinette said Sunday that she and her teammates accept the Coyotes' fate.

"We feel better today," she said. "I think we realize that it's the game, that's what happens in basketball, and you're not going win every game that you think you should.

"It's just been a great year for us, a great experience," she said. "Today is amazing to see all of these people here. We don't have much to hang our heads about. It's a huge positive; we didn't win it, but we still feel really good about our season."

"It was just hard knowing that we were that close, and not playing up to our full potential," senior Jenna Hoffman said. "I guess you just have to look back at the successful season that you did have."

The championship game loss was particularly hard to swallow, Robinette said, because, frankly, the Coyotes aren't used to losing this year. This season was nearly flawless, with only one loss in 34 games before Sunday's dual with Northern Kentucky.

"Not many teams can say that," Robinette said. "There's only one team that can end the year with a win, and unfortunately it wasn't us, but we're still proud of what we've done, and it was fun."

There were many gratifying moments during the Coyotes' stay in Kearney, NE, including finding time to visit an elementary school there.

"We really brightened those kids' day, and it was a great experience to see them fall in love with you just because you're a college basketball player," Robinette said. "But the thing I'll remember the most is just hanging out with the girls one last time. We four seniors tried to savor every moment that we could."

One of Robinette's teammates is her sister, Amy. But, she said, the entire team feels like family.

"All of these girls – I'd do anything for them, and it's something that you can't coach, that you can't teach, to have relationships like we have," she said. "This whole experience has been amazing and the relationships that we have will last forever."

Hoffman said she and her fellow Coyotes' efforts attempts to score simply weren't as effective against the tall Northern Kentucky team.

"Some of those shots that we normally hit night in and night out just weren't going down for us," she said, "and they responded with a last run. That's kind of been our signature all year. We always make that big push for that last run, and we just couldn't get that last run put together."

Hoffman said she'll never forget the unique moments she and her coaches and teammates shared while participating in the Elite Eight in Kearney.

"We had a great time on and off the court, and those memories will stick with me for a long while," she said.

A predominant recollection of the experience, she said, will be the obvious sea of red shirts, caps and other USD colors worn by a majority of the fans seated in the bleachers of the University of Nebraska at Kearney Health and Sports Center.

"It was so great," Hoffman said. "So many people made the drive, when they probably could have stayed home and watched the game on TV. Just to have all of those fans come out and support us like that was really great."

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