‘Championship Built’ is a series looking at local championship teams and how their rosters were put together. Today we take a look at the 1997 Northwest Nazarene NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Championship team.
Roger Schmidt has a love for construction and building things. The former Northwest Nazarene women’s basketball coach has spent years helping on improvement projects around the Northwest Nazarene campus and its athletic facilities.
He took a builder’s approach while constructing his basketball teams.
“I’m a good visualizer when I build, I see the end product before it’s done,” Schmidt said. “I think coaching is a little bit the same way, you have to know what’s your end goal or what your product is going to be.”
Schmidt had a certain type of player he liked to recruit when it came to his basketball. He wanted players who lived within driving distance of the Nampa campus and he wanted players who had a tough small-town upbringing. Using those parameters, he was able to build his masterpiece on the court — the 1997 NAIA Division II National Championship team. Schmidt built that Crusader team using players from places like Parma, McCall, Grangeville, Ontario and Molalla, Oregon.
“It was a good fit, because he loved getting the players from the small town, and when it came down to it, I wanted to be somewhere with that kind of feel as well,” said Erica (Walton) Benear, a senior forward from Ontario who led the team with 15.3 points per game. “I was also able to be around my family so they could enjoy it and continue to be able to watch me at that level.”
The team was built around its four seniors — Benear, Ellen (Duncan) Tamminga and Jennifer (Meyers) Long — who all were four-year players, and Kari Smith, who transferred in during her sophomore season. The year that Smith joined them, 1994-95, Northwest Nazarene made a surprise trip to the national championship game, falling to conference rival Western Oregon in the championship.
That run set the tone for the next couple of years, and having gotten so close it set the drive to not only get back but win the championship game.
But in 1996, Northwest Nazarene fell flat in nationals, losing their first-round game.
“That was the biggest fire, we went and we lost,” said Tamminga. “So when we came back as seniors that spring, we had a meeting and we said ‘this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to win it next year.’ That was our complete goal and all spring we got up at six in the morning before classes. We hit the gym without Roger. He wasn’t telling us to do any of that, we just decided that’s what it would take to get there.”
One of the reasons Schmidt said he looked for small-town players was that they had a particular type of work ethic. Growing up in a farming community installs that in you with the chores you have to do, he said.
Whenever he was in the process of recruiting a player, he would ask one simple question: ‘What’s your definition of fun?’
He would get all sorts of answers before explaining that his definition of fun includes hard work, and any player that played for him should also have hard work as part of their definition. The early morning workouts were a product of that.
“They charted out all their stuff and they did running programs,” Schmidt said, “Nothing intense, but they knew what they were doing and knew the improvements they were making. To me, if you’re building something, you got to know the process of how to measure to tell if you are being successful and doing the things that are going to help us get to where we think we want to be.”
Tamminga had been a three-sport athlete at McCall-Donnelly High, getting recruiting looks in basketball, volleyball and track and field from schools all over the Northwest, including a few NCAA Division I offers. She wanted to go to a Christian school, and family ties drew her to Northwest Nazarene, where she had offers in both volleyball and basketball. However, the volleyball season was being extended into December, so Tamminga chose between the two sports. She chose basketball and competed in shot put and discus for the track and field team.
Benear also had received interest from NCAA Division I schools like Portland State and Utah, but she said Schmidt started recruiting her to Northwest Nazarene early on and stuck with her throughout her career at Ontario.
“I’m not exactly sure how he knew about me, or if it was just that he liked to stay close (to Nampa),” Benear said. “It was probably the tournaments, but I remember him early on with Eric Ely, who was the assistant coach at the time, and I just remember them coming to numerous games, especially my senior year.”
Unlike Tamminga and Benear, Long’s recruitment was limited to just a few smaller schools. But the Parma product knew she wanted to continue her basketball career in college.
“I was really successful at Parma, so it was something I thought about for a long time,” said Long. “I wanted to play basketball in college, but really didn’t know what I wanted to study. So when the opportunity came up, I just knew that’s where I needed to be. So with my parents encouragement, I signed the letter.”
After their freshman year, Smith joined them. Smith had been out of basketball the previous two years, giving birth to her son, Patrick, during that time. During her high school career, she lived in Boise, Challis and Coeur d’Alene, due to her father’s career in education. She spent the 1989-90 season playing at Boise State, then transferred to Warner Pacific, where she spent a year before leaving the team.
After a couple of years living in the Portland area, Smith moved back in with her family, who had moved to back to the Treasure Valley. Not sure she wanted to get back into basketball, it was her father who gave her the push.
Schmidt had tried to recruit Smith out of high school and again once she transferred out of Boise State. Her father, Dave Smith, took it upon himself to call Schmidt and see if there was a spot on the team for his daughter.
“My dad comes to me and he goes ‘hey I just got off the phone with Roger, and he wants you to go to open gym,” Smith remembers. “So I ended up going there to open gym, and after my second time over there, he offered me a scholarship.”
The corps of the team was completed prior to the 1996-97 championship season, when the Crusaders added a couple of more pieces to the puzzle.
Staci (Wilson) Ratcliffe, a Molalla, Oregon, native, who had spent her freshman season at Portland State, came in and took over in the post position. She led the team with 8.0 rebounds per game.
Finally, Staci Kirk-Carter came in as a freshman from Boise, and she started 21 games at point guard, scoring 8.6 points per game. Kirk-Carter went on to become the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,657 career points.
“Staci was (6-foot-1), and she ended up playing point for us,” Schmidt said. “She’d come up and a lot of the point guards were 5-6, 5-8, so she would go up and look over the top. She had a good command of the offense and she could shoot the deep 3. She was one of those players that liked to play. She always played with a smile on, she enjoyed the game.”
Five different players on that roster, Kirk-Carter, Benear, Tamminga, Smith and Ratcliffe, still rank in the top-20 in program history in terms of scoring. With such a deep talent of players, Schmidt said he had about 15 different lineup rotations that he used throughout the course of the 1996-97 season. A total of nine different players got at least one start.
“We kind of all said ‘hey try to stop one of us,’” Smith said. “One time Erica scored 20, another time Ellen would score 20, I would score 20. It just didn’t matter, that’s what made us such a great team. It was ‘hey, who’s hot? Let’s get the ball in their hand.’”
The Crusaders traveled to Angola, Indiana, for the national tournament, where they were the No. 3 seed after a 21-7 season and a Cascade Conference regular season and tournament title.
In their 94-48 opening-round win against Dominican (California), they broke a NAIA National Tournament record with 14 3-pointers. A Benear 3-pointer with under a minute left gave Northwest Nazarene a 74-72 win over Austin (Texas) in the second round and a 90-76 win against St. Francis (Indiana) put the Crusaders in the semifinals. Smith had 23 points against St. Francis, then 25 points two days later in an 86-80 win against Doane (Nebraska) before Ratcliffe recorded a double-double in the championship game, 22 points and 13 rebounds, in a 64-46 win against Black Hills State (South Dakota)
It’s the only national championship in team history.
“To have all of us come together at a school like that at that moment ... it just was (special),” Tamminga said. “We were all looking for a different kind of experience and we ended up there together.”