Commentary: Roche, Hegge left mark through USD’s transition

With the DakotaDome nearly empty, Annie Roche sat alone on one of the court-side seats.

Between gazed looks across the expansive building, the senior held her head down between her legs. The dejected and disappointed posture told it all – the end was here.

Five years later, Roche's career with the South Dakota women's basketball team came to a sudden end as her team was beaten by Pac-12 Conference member Colorado 64-55 in Monday night's WNIT second round game.

"It was a really fun year, I'm so grateful for everything throughout my career," the Vermillion native said during a teary-eyed post-game interview.

"It's been a blast."

One of three departing seniors on a team that won 13 of 15 games down the stretch, Roche – along with Amber Hegge and Jodie Boss – was at the same time understandably shocked by the sudden end and reflective.

Twenty minutes after arriving at her court-side seat after the game, Roche slowly wandered off the court and into the locker room.

Just like that, the season was over for her and the Coyotes (23-8).

Roche and Hegge, from nearby Crofton, NE, are the last of the two hold-overs from the Division II days for USD, which becomes eligible for the Summit League and NCAA Tournament next season.

Each spent five years in the program, redshirting a different season, but came together for the final three to help guide the Coyotes to their goal, the WNIT.

It was, as coach Ryun Williams frequently said the last few weeks, the best this team could accomplish this season.

"Those three seniors, this is what they wanted," Williams said. "Yeah it didn't end great, but our season was outstanding, and they have a lot to be proud of.

"Those kids pioneered us through the transition."

Hegge, owner of 20 points and seven rebounds in Monday's loss, was a freshman on USD's 2008 run to the D-II national championship game. After redshirting her sophomore season, she missed only four games the rest of her career – slowly developing into the dominant scorer she eventually became.

Now, as the dust has settled on her career, we can evaluate her impact.

With Hegge in the lineup, the Coyotes were 89-36.

"It's been a great season, but right now, it's not so much fun, obviously," she said after Monday's loss. "Looking back, it'll be fun with what we did – we won a lot of games.

"It's been pretty fun."

In the case of Roche, she redshirted her first season, then jumped right into the starting lineup and stayed there for the next four years. Her impact with the Coyotes?

A 76-47 record.

Sure, the program will move forward, and will more than likely have bigger names and better teams come into the DakotaDome, but it will do so without the two seniors who forged the Division I legacy.

Four years after nearly hoisting a national championship, USD was at a new level and was beating seven teams that would earn trips to D-I postseasons – notably, as Hegge pointed out, South Dakota State.

"This year, to me, was Coyote basketball," Williams said. "It was tough, it was very determined, it was fun, the kids were classy off the floor and they are great students.

"That's Coyote basketball."

So, how does the WNIT kick-start the program to the next level?

"I would hope so," Williams said, able to crack a smile. "The program has momentum. The kids that are next in line; there's a lot to live up to, but they can do it. The precedent has been set.

"A sign of a good program is progressing," he added. "We've had some great kids graduate, and we just kept finding a way. We will do that."

But it won't be with Hegge or Roche.

No, if the Coyotes are to ever qualify for the 'big dance' – the event that looms in the wings, as sort of a cruel twist of timing – it will be without the two area standouts.

"I'm really exited for our program to be eligible for the NCAA tournament," Roche said. "And I'll be excited to go up to Sioux Falls and cheer on the Yotes."

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