Washington University men, women are No. 1 -- again

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Sitting in his office awaiting the latest test for the top-ranked men's basketball team in NCAA Division III, Mark Edwards' concentration is broken by raucous cheers from the other side of the wall.

It's the Washington University women's team, also unbeaten, also top-ranked, holding its personal pre-game pep rally, before taking to the court both teams have turned into a small college pit.

The Bears are doing it again, having it both ways, mixing a prestigious Midwestern learning experience with athletic excellence. Both also were ranked No. 1 at the same time last season.

The women, who won four straight national championships from 1998-2001, are 16-0. So are the men, for whom Edwards is every bit as proud of their cumulative 3.27 grade point average the last semester and 100 percent graduation rate, after following the women on the court and surviving an overtime thriller against Rochester Friday night to extend a school-record home winning streak to 25. On Sunday, they made it 26 in a row with an easier triumph over Carnegie Mellon.

"To me," Edwards said, "that is an indication of total commitment. They take care of business on and off the court."

The women's team, which has won 47 straight regular-season games, used to rule the roost on the suburban St. Louis campus. Serving as a backdrop in coach Nancy Fahey's office is an impressive collection of national championship plaques adorned with nets.

Fahey entered the season with an .855 career winning percentage, best in Division III, including an all-division women's record 81-game winning streak that ended in 2001. The Bears had a perfect record in the University Athletic Association, a collection of far-flung, like-minded institutions, four times in Fahey's first 16 seasons, and have won 72 in a row in the regular season at home.

The last two seasons, the men's and women's programs have shared top billing. Last year, both teams were 14-0 in conference play and both made a run at a national championship before falling short.

On the men's team, center Chris Jeffries, forward Jarriot Rook and guard Dustin Tylka all topped 1,000 career points this season. Guard Matt Tabash is the school's career steals leader and is third in assists.

"They're still kids, but they have good judgement and set good priorities," Edwards said. "That's what the whole conference is about. They're all going on to med school, law school."

Neither program gets caught up in the perfect game talk.

"I don't think we think a whole lot about it," Tabash said. "We go out every single game and we feel we can beat any opponent."

To many members of the women's team, the first part of the season has been a blur of victories.

"It's kind of odd, because we've played all these games and I can't even believe it," said senior guard Laura Crowley, the team's top 3-point threat.

There's definitely no rivalry between the programs. The teams travel together, eat together, stay together, and lend moral support for each other.

"We're always there for them and they're always there for us," Crowley said. "It's been a great experience."

Edwards is in his 22nd season at the school, and this looks like his best shot at a national title that so far has eluded the men. The last two seasons, the men have been knocked out of the NCAA tournament on a last-second shot.

"Their goal is to do what we did last year, only better," Edwards said. "That's what they've been working at."

The women are perhaps more vulnerable than usual due to their lack of a single go-to player such as three-time Division III player of the year Alia Fischer, who led the Bears to championships in 1998, 1999 and 2000, or Tasha Rodgers, the player of the year on the 2001 championship team.

After falling short in the run for a fifth straight championship last year, Fahey is avoiding a title-or-bust attitude with a team that so far has an average winning margin of almost 30 points.

"This game isn't meant for someone to win it every year, it's just too competitive," Fahey said. "Last year it was a lot of pressure, the drive for five and all that stuff.

"I think you can really ruin a season if you have to win the last game."

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