Bethel Lady 'Cats Qualify for Division I National Championship

The Bethel College Lady Wildcats received notification from the NAIA that they have qualified for the NAIA Division I Women's Basketball National Championship to be played in Jackson, Tenn., starting on March 18, 2009. It marks the first time that Bethel has qualified for the National Tournament in Division I play. Bethel qualified for the Division II championships in the 2002-03, 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. The Bethel College Lady Wildcats will face the twelfth ranked Stars of Oklahoma City University in the first round of the championship. The two teams will play in the first game of the tournament on Wednesday, March 18 at 8:30 a.m. The game will be aired live on 100.9 FM The Farm.

"It's a special feeling being the first team to qualify in Division I," said Head Coach Chris Nelson. "I'm happy for the girls; they have worked very hard to achieve this. The group we brought in is a diverse group but they have respect for one another and have meshed together well."

In the final poll of the season, Bethel was #23 in the nation. This marked the first season that the Lady Wildcats were ranked in the top 25 in Division I, when they cracked the top 25 on December 1, 2008. There they stayed for the rest of the season peaking at #18 in the January 26, 2009 poll.

Coach Nelson said that narrowly missing out on the tournament last season motivated him even more to make the 32 team field this year. He attributed much of this season's success to having the right type of players. He emphasized that in order to win you have to have players with character, with the right mind set in and out of the classroom and players that take care of themselves physically.

One of those players is junior Nina Djokovic, a 6'1" Belgrade, Serbia native. Djokovic, a TranSouth All-Conference First Team selection, scored her 1,000th point this season and has seen the program change since her freshman season.

"When I first got here, things were slower, but we got better players each year," said Djokovic. "We are much more physical now, in better shape. Our team skill and speed is much better, which allows us to focus more on the little things. Last year's goal was the same as this year, but the players we brought in and the maturity of the returning players made it more realistic this year."

By looking at the previous three years, it can be seen what Djokovic is referencing. In the 2006-07 season, Bethel finished seventh in the TranSouth Conference standings. A year later, they finished fifth. This season they Lady Wildcats were fourth with a 19-12 overall mark and 9-7 in the conference.

The improvement gave the Lady Wildcats motivation and confidence.

"The more positive results we had this year pushed us to work harder," said sophomore shooting guard Anna Trull (McKenzie, Tenn.). "Players have been shooting more and worked really hard on correcting mistakes. We are always working, never giving up."

It is that never giving up attitude that has propelled the Lady Wildcats onto the national scene. Coach Nelson sees a team that has been in some big ballgames already this season and sees a team that is rejuvenated.

"Our players are refreshed; it is almost like the first practices of the season. They seem to be practicing even harder if that is possible," said Coach Nelson. "Although they are excited, I think playing in big arenas at Southeast Missouri State University and Murray State University has helped us get ready for this stage. The girls are eager to play with a purpose and are not just satisfied with being in the national tournament."

Coach Nelson attributes the team's success and improvement to the recruiting efforts of Assistant Coach Martina Mihailovic and former Assistant Coach Holly Knott. He also stated that having a team deep with talent helps expose his team's weaknesses during intense practices. He added that play in the national tournament has been physical and that his team's depth should be a big asset.

Nelson, Djokovic and Trull each added that fan support has been tremendous throughout the season. And that the school's pep band is also a big boost.

On what she thought the Lady Wildcats chances were, Djokovic responded, "We lost to teams in our conference that are in front of us, but we are playing in a different atmosphere. Our entire team believes that anything is possible."

Tickets for the 29th Annual NAIA Division I Women's National Basketball Championship can be purchased by calling (731) 424-NAIA - (731) 424-6242.