Very few college basketball coaches walk into an already-made program when they get their first opportunity to lead a team. Jessie Biggs sure didn’t.
The Indiana Tech women’s basketball coach took over a Warrior program that had endured five losing seasons in the previous six, so she didn’t expect anything other than what the job has been: which is a great deal of work.
“I understood that it was going to be a process,” Biggs told The News-Sentinel. “I don’t think that great things are built overnight.”
Sometimes “great things” take five years to construct.
The Warriors added another chapter to program lore Wednesday, as they received their first bid to the NAIA Division II National Tournament in 27 seasons. Indiana Tech (25-7) was awarded a four seed and will travel to Sioux City, Iowa to face five-seed Tabor (Ks.) (26-6) March 8 at 4:30 p.m. (EST).
Making history is something that this team is growing accustomed to.
Biggs has guided the program to three winning seasons in the past four years, including a combined 46 wins over the last two seasons. That success hit a high point less than two weeks ago when the Warriors knocked off Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference perennial champion Davenport (the Panthers have won 11 straight league titles) for the first time 28 tries.
The win was part of an 18-4 league mark and second place finish racked up by Biggs’ team, both of which were the best in at least the last 12 years.
“We have really good players at every position,” junior guard Haley Cook said. “It is not just one position; we are special at every position.”
Indiana Tech definitely is “special” at center, where former Leo High School standout Keanna Gary earned WHAC Player of the Year this season. But as Cook noted, the Warriors are balanced in their ability.
In the epic win over Davenport, it was Cook that drilled the game-winning 3-pointer off a screen from Gary.
“It was a great screen,” Cook laughed.
Not only are the Warriors balanced and talented, they are close, as well.
“When we recruit players,” Biggs said, “I’m not only recruiting them, but I am recruiting their families. I want them to feel welcome here. This is a family environment.”
Cook agreed and also described the team as “a family,” and to build that cohesion, the Indiana Tech squad hosts a potluck for all of the players and their families following each home game.
“The parents and their siblings are just as much a part of our program as their kids are,” Biggs said.
Biggs is an Iowa native that starred at Northern Iowa and later coached at NCAA Division III Coe College, as well as NCAA Division I Western Illinois before coming to Fort Wayne. The 2016-17 WHAC Coach of the Year didn’t know what the talent level would be in the area, but she soon learned.
“There is great basketball in this area,” Biggs said. “You have to do a little work and go out and sell Indiana Tech and what we have to offer and get (the recruits) on campus, but there are plenty of, talent-wise, good basketball players in this area, it is just getting your hands dirty and doing the dirty work.”
Indiana Tech features not just Gary, but her high school teammate Taylor Seiss, Baylee Rinehart (DeKalb High School), and former Heritage star Kendall Knapke.
Next season, the Warriors will add Aaliyah Gaines (Canterbury), who transferred to the program from Evansville.
Biggs has built this successful, family-type atmosphere not just with talent, but the right talent.
“When I recruit kids,” Biggs explained, “I say you are going to learn three things here, whether you play a minute for me or play every minute for me, and that is respect, responsibility and time management.
“We really try to instill those life skills in them. Winning comes secondary to having great people. I don’t want to win with bad people.”
Cook was recently named as an First Team Academic All-American (she has a 3.91 GPA in Business Administration) and she heaped praise on Biggs’ for being a positive influence in her life and career.
“Coach Biggs is a great coach and she is a really good person too,” Cook said. “She is very hard-nosed and a very good person to play for. I wouldn’t want to play for anybody else.”
Cougars are dancing
The Saint Francis women’s program appeared dead on the court in early February.
The Cougars began the month of February with a 62-60 loss to Taylor, which was their fifth straight defeat and placed them at 11-14 on the season. However, that would be virtually the lone down-point for the program in the month, as Saint Francis won seven straight games before falling on a shot in the final seconds to league champion Marian in the Crossroads League Tournament final Monday.
For their effort, the Cougars were awarded a once unfathomable bid to the national tournament.
“That just adds into the good basketball in this area,” Biggs said of her city rival. “Jason has done a great job over there.”
Second-year Saint Francis coach Jason Ridge has led the program to 33 wins in the past two seasons and the Cougars (18-15) will open the national tournament against No. 2-seed Davenport (30-3) March 8 at 9:30 a.m. (EST).
“The Fort Wayne area has really good basketball,” Biggs said. “Both teams going prove that.”
Biggs said the first person that called her when she was hired by Indiana Tech five years ago was former Saint Francis coach Gary Andrews and she said that Ridge “has been great” to deal with, as well.
“It’s hard when you are recruiting the same kids,” Biggs said, “but it helps when they have the same morals. They want to help people and make them better people and that is Jason. It helps to get along when you have the same morals and the same background.”