Women remember Championship

Erik Buchinger

Wednesday marked the 20-year anniversary of the day the UW Oshkosh women’s basketball team defeated Mount Union College (Ohio) 66-50 in the national championship game.

The Titans capped off their perfect 31-0 season in front of a record-setting crowd at the Kolf Sports Center on March 16, 1996.

“It was definitely a sense of accomplishment,” then-head coach Kathi Bennett said. “It was something we did together that nobody at Oshkosh had done in women’s basketball.”

Shelley Dietz shot 6 of 9 from the 3-point line and finished with a game-high 20 points for the Titans.

“We had the national Division III Player of the Year on our team, Wendy Wangerin, who was a post player,” Dietz said. “Mount Union double and triple teamed her at times leaving the perimeter players a little more open. I luckily had the hot hand, and my teammates were able to get me open and get me the ball.”

The Titans’ road to their first national championship in school history began the year prior when they were defeated in the title game by Capital University (Ohio) to finish the 1994-95 season.

“That was devastating,” Wendy Wangerin (Meka) said. “That game probably stics out in my head more than the championship game we won, and it’s a game that will stick in my head for the rest of my life.”

According to Wangerin, with five minutes remaining and the lead, she looked across the lane and to teammate Natalie DeMichei while waiting for an upcoming free-throw attempt.

“I said, ‘We are going to win this game,’” Wangerin said. “She looked at me, and she’s like, ‘You just jinxed it.’ Sure enough after that if something could go wrong, it did. It was just one thing after another, and we just couldn’t do anything right. No matter what we did, something bad happened. It was just out of our control, and that’s what it felt like. It was insane.”

Oshkosh lost the game 59-55 to the Crusaders, who finished 33-0 as the first team to go undefeated in NCAA Division III women’s basketball history.

According to Bennett, the national title game loss made the Titans better heading into the next season.

“I think they had a sense of what it takes – the discipline, the work you put into the summer, the camaraderie and how you have to trust each other,” Bennett said. “I think it just helped them figure out what tournament time was all about.”

Bennett said she walked the team to the UWO track and field and men’s and women’s cross country trophy case to show her players what it’s like to be the best team in the country.

“[Track and field and cross country coaches] Deb Vercauteren and John Zupanc had established a program, and we were trying to establish a program as well,” Bennett said.

Heading into the 1995-96 season, Oshkosh was not thinking about becoming the second team in program history to go undefeated.
Early in the conference season, the team’s attitude changed while stretching prior to a practice in Albee Hall, where the UWO women’s basketball team played its home games at the time.

“I know we didn’t lose, but we played poorly in a couple games,” Bennett said. “I remember we were in the stretching circle, and I was trying to get them to understand that this is going to take a lot more, and I asked them, ‘What is it that you want?’”

When nobody responded to the question, Bennett called on Wangerin.

“Then she calls me out. ‘Wendy, what is it that you want out of this season?’ I just looked at her, and I’m like, ‘I want to go undefeated’,” Wangerin said. “That kind of set the stage for the rest of the season with where we were going and what we were going to be about.”

Bennett said Wangerin’s answer was a turning point to the season.

“I think from that point on, we had a little bit more of a laser focus I would say,” Bennett said. “I thought our intensity level got jacked up.”

Oshkosh won 23 of 25 regular season games by double digits heading in to the NCAA Tournament, and Wangerin said the team never felt the pressure of finishing the season with a perfect record.

“We never talked about any of that,” Wangerin said. “It was just focusing on our opponent, destroying them, and moving on to the next one.”

After five wins in the NCAA Tournament, the Titans advanced to the national championship, which was moved to Kolf where 4,001 fans crammed in to set a NCAA Division III record for a women’s basketball game.

“I think once we walked out the door and saw all the people, we had never had that many people at a game before,” Wangerin said. “It was a whole different world for us to walk into. It was crazy, amazing and the feeling was incredible.”

According to Dietz, the atmosphere was unique, but the team was focused on basketball once the game started.

“Listening to the national anthem being played by a harmonica and the cheers that came after, it got loud in there,” Dietz said. “But once the ball is thrown up, the focus becomes between the lines with your teammates and your coaches.”
Wangerin, who is currently the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,743 career points, said she is still unable to explain the feeling of winning a national championship.

“Words can’t describe that, but I think it was a combination of excitement and relief because it was something we worked so hard for all season,” Wangerin said. “Being able to share that with our teammates, and our family and friends were there, it was just such a great time because we got to share it with everybody”.

In addition to being the second undefeated team in Division III women’s basketball history, the Titans outscored their opponents by nearly 28 points per game, and Bennett and Wangerin were named national coach and player of the year, respectively.

Following the national title victory, Bennett moved on to coach for 19 years at the Division I level, including head coaching positions at the University of Evansville, Indiana University, an assistant at the University of Wisconsin and a head coach at Northern Illinois University.

“The group of players that I had that allowed me to go the next level,” Bennett said. “They allowed me to coach the way I did and have an intensity level about myself, and I feel like I owe my success to that group.”

Wangerin is now a principal at Landau Elementary School in Cathedral City, Calif., and Dietz co-owns three Subway restaurants in Green Bay with her brother.

In addition, Dietz is a certified WIAA official and has refereed nine Wisconsin women’s high school basketball state tournaments and she became the first woman ever to officiate the boy’s state tournament in 2015.

After resigning at Northern Illinois in April 2015, Bennett now works with Eastbay in Wausau. Looking back, she said the 1996 championship season is still one of the best memories as a coach.

“They were one of the hardest-working teams I’ve ever coached, and over the years, I’ve really appreciated them for that,” Bennett said.