“The Perfect Swarm” reunited Saturday as current and former members of the reigning NCAA Division III national champion Howard Payne Lady Jackets women’s basketball team converged on Old Main Tower to collect some jewelry they’ve been waiting for since March.
The Lady Jackets, who earlier in the day served as grand marshals of the Howard Payne homecoming parade, were honored with a public ceremony as the team received its long-awaited 2008 national championship rings.
“It felt like we waited forever, but they’re finally here,” said junior Hope Hohertz, last season’s leading scorer among the Lady Jacket returnees. “It’s something we’ll always remember and something I’ll never forget, but it’s also sad. This is the last time we’ll officially be together.”
The Lady Jackets capped their 33-0 run to the national championship with a 68-54 victory over Messiah at Hope College in Holland, Mich. on March 22. The victory gave the university its first NCAA national title and helped build the foundation for the “University of Champions” slogan that Howard Payne has since adopted.
Former players Meia Daniels, Stacey Blalock, Kim Hoffman and Daphnie Pippins, along with ex-head coach Chris Kielsmeier, joined the nine returning Lady Jackets and associate head coach Lindy Hatfield on stage in front of an estimated crowd of 500.
“For me, actually not being here any more, it was pretty amazing,” said Hoffman, a member of the all-tournament team at the Final Four. “I’ve been waiting for this day since I graduated.
“I’m still really close with a lot of the girls and I miss the team chemistry and the family that we were. I’ll remember that, and our fans and the support we got in the community, the most.”
Dallas Huston, voice of Howard Payne athletics, served as emcee of the event, while HPU president Dr. Lanny Hall and Rick Akins, chairman of the HPU Board of Trustees, presented the Lady Jackets with their rings.
Kielsmeier, the NCAA Division III national coach of the year in 2008, and Daniels, the Division III national player of the year last season, addressed the crowd prior to the ring presentation.
“It was an emotional day for me, but a great day,” said Kielsmeier, who is now head coach at Division II Wayne State in Nebraska. “It was great to be back and see so many close friends. I was also able to see the trophy case, and I could stand in front of it for hours and just reminiscence.
“It’s hard to put today into words or describe. I talked to so many people, some I didn’t even know, and to hear their stories about what they experienced and the moments they were able to have because of the experiences we were able to give them. It’s awesome to know you can affect somebody’s life that much just with the game of basketball, doing things the right way and playing hard. It was just a special weekend.”
Following the ceremony, the Lady Jackets also received their American Southwest Conference championship rings, as well as national championship necklaces. The national champions then huddled one final time, broke out with the chant of “Lady Jackets” and penned the final chapter of “The Perfect Swarm” era.
“Today brought back a lot of memories for our players, coaching staff and community,” said Hatfield, who is entering her third season on the HPU staff. “I was actually nervous to come up on stage and be back in the eyes of Brownwood for all our accomplishments. We’ve had to wait for this since March, but it was great to see all the girls and Coach K together again. It feels great to celebrate it one last time.”
The focus for Howard Payne now shifts to the present and the future. First-year head coach Josh Prock and the Lady Jackets will begin their defense of the national championship on Nov. 21 when they journey to the Colorado College Tip-Off Tournament.
Prock, as well as the incoming freshmen who will help comprise this year’s roster, were among those in attendance at the ceremony.
“All of our freshman class was in attendance and for them to see what we accomplished, I know it’s burning a fire in them to do as close as they can to what we did last year,” Hatfield said. “It was great for Coach Prock and the freshmen to be here to support us, and I think today lit a fire under them and our returners to get something great accomplished this year. It’s a great start to the next season, and we can’t wait to get it going.”