CLEVELAND: When Jodi Kest came home to Ohio to interview at the University of Akron in 2006, those close to the women’s basketball coach thought she’d lost her mind.
“People thought I was crazy to take the job because of the losing tradition over that many years,” said Kest, who’d just wrapped her fourth season at Texas A&M Corpus Christi when Akron called. “They didn’t think I could turn around the program.”
Why in the world would she even consider leaving a flourishing program for one that had suffered through seven consecutive losing seasons, averaged just four victories in a six-year period and had hit rock bottom with a 1-27 season?
A Mayfield Heights native with parents who lived a 45-minute drive from UA’s campus not withstanding, Kest would soon have other — and much more appealing — opportunities.
Although Kest initially shocked those close to her when she first accepted the UA post, odds are few of them will be surprised to learn of her eventual success now that Kest has finally reached her goal.
With a 79-68 victory over Ball State in the Mid-American Conference Tournament title game securing an automatic bid, the Zips (23-9) are set to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I’ve been waiting for [this] for eight years,” Kest said. “When I first got hired, there weren’t many people supporting us. I asked, ‘what’s it going to take to get support?’ I was told, ‘you need to win.’ ”
A year after experiencing the pain of losing in the MAC title game, giddy Zips players jumped up and down in each other’s arms and donned championship T-shirts and hats in celebration as blue, green and silver streamers rained down from the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday.
“These kids took a leap of faith when we recruited them,” Kest said. “It’s not easy to take over a program that’s had so many losing seasons and take a chance on it. It’s easier to go someplace that’s already been successful, that already has fans.
“For these young ladies to take a chance on us — for Rachel [Tecca] and even before her with Taylor Ruper and Kara Murphy and all the others who’ve played and believed in us — they’re very much a part of this success.”
Prelude to breakthrough
It was impossible to feel it last year when UA lost to Central Michigan in the MAC title game, but that defeat was the prelude to this season’s success.
“It was clear from the moment the tournament began, the goal was to win a MAC championship and make the NCAA Tournament,” Athletic Director Tom Wistrcill said. “So when we beat Central Michigan [in Friday’s semifinals], there was no celebration in the locker room. It was business as usual — the team simply expected to be back in the title game.
“[Kest] has a great intensity about the way she coaches. When you add the kind of players who can match her intensity, you can have great success. This group of seniors really bought in from Day One. Year by year they got better and better. This year is just seemed special from the start — everything was clicking and they stayed healthy enough.”
But there were obstacles.
Senior guard Sina King was forced to miss the season with a blood clot that meant ingesting blood thinners that would keep her playing. The team rallied around King and pressed on.
“We’ve rallied around Sina [because] what she’s gone through has been really hard,” Kest said. “For her to continue to work hard and support our team, we wouldn’t be here today if not for the way she’s handled this whole situation.”
Tecca, a senior guard from Archbishop Hoban, led the way Saturday with a game-high 30 points, but it was more than her scoring that propelled the No. 3-seed Zips to the historic win. The title game MVP also contributed 12 rebounds, six assists and a steal.
“Everything that we’ve individually accomplished, it’s all led up to this,” Tecca said. “This is a moment we’ll never forget, a moment we’ll cherish forever.”
Before Tecca took over Saturday, senior guard Hanna Luburgh provided the consistent spark in the early rounds for the Zips’ up-tempo offense.
“When you have two elite players like Rachel and Hanna, special things can happen,’’ Wistrcill said. ‘‘This tournament was a perfect example. The first two games, Hanna carried us. Today, Ball State worked on taking Hanna away, allowing Rachel to take off. It’s a credit to Jodi and her staff for the way they’ve recruited and the kind of players they’ve brought in.”
The process of turning a perennial loser into the league’s best began before the Zips’ current class of players.
“It started with Kara Murphy,” said Tecca, who’d been told she was “too skinny” and “wasn’t tall enough” by other college programs. “She said, ‘hey, you can come in here and contribute and we can turn this program around.’ And that’s what Coach Kest has done. She’s an incredible coach and I’m so glad she recruited me and happy to have had the opportunity to play for her.”
The feeling is mutual for Kest when it comes to UA.
“I was a Division II coach [at Gannon University] for many years and we went to the Division II NCAA’s, so that was pretty sweet,” Kest said. “I was also an independent coach [at Corpus Christi] and we went to the WNIT, which was very special because it was the first time an independent team had done that. But this is NCAA Division I, the highest level.”
Perhaps even more than experiencing the current thrill of making program history, Saturday’s win could continue to pay dividends for years to come.
“Players want to come play for winners — a winning program carries on,” Wistrcill said. “This helps with recruiting, with fund raising, with getting people excited about the team and women’s basketball.”
There is the reality that Kest could parlay her success into a move to bigger conference.
“That could be the case,” Wistrcill said. “But we think Jodi’s very happy and we’re thrilled with her. She’s built the program. Now the hope is that she wants to stay and enjoy the fruits of her labor. We hope she plans on being a Zip for a long time.”