Keeping Score

By Cindy Luis

Wednesday, April 10, 1996

No SI jinx here

THIS is one for Ripley's Believe It Or Not. The infamous Sports Illustrated jinx CAN be broken.

The University of San Francisco coaching tandem of Bill Nepfel and Mary Hile-Nepfel proved it last month. After the March 18 issue of the magazine hit the stands, the only married co-head coaches in Division I saw their Lady Dons hit the court and proceed to tear up the Mideast regional.

USF defeated No. 16 Florida and then No. 13 and host Duke to gain the Sweet 16, becoming the first No. 14 seed to advance that far. The Lady Dons discovered that No. 2 was their unlucky number; USF had its season ended by second-ranked Connecticut, the defending national champion.

"The story was originally written in October and was supposed to run in the basketball preview issue," said Nepfel, who coached the University of Hawaii Wahine from 1984-87. "When we won the conference, Sports Illustrated decided to run it. I thought, 'Oh, great, the Sports Illustrated jinx just in time for the regionals.' It turned out to be the Sports Illustrated good luck charm for us. We won two games after it came out."

The husband-wife combo has won a lot of games since Nepfel left the Wahine, culminating with this season's 24-8 record. The Lady Dons finished ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 1980, when Hile-Nepfel led the team to a No. 19 spot in the poll.

"This season was a lot of fun," said Hile-Nepfel, the all-time leading scorer in USF basketball history, men's and women's programs. "And there was no better feeling than when we beat Duke on their home court. Our players did a great job with the pressure.

"We're very happy to be at USF. When I started out coaching, this was the place where I wanted to eventually be."

Nepfel was ready to start his fourth season with the Wahine when the call came from USF. The school wanted his wife to return to campus and, hopefully, return the team to success.

"It was a difficult move for Bill, leaving Hawaii," said Hile-Nepfel, who worked as a newspaper clerk and at the Chaminade sports information department while waiting for a coaching opportunity. "Bill had done a good job (54-35 in three seasons) but he had some goals he wasn't able to fulfill."

Nepfel had two 20-win seasons, the first in the program's history. But the Wahine never advanced to the NCAA Tournament, losing the first game of the conference tournament three consecutive years.

The Lady Dons, playing in the shadow of Bay Area sister Stanford, were 12-14 two years ago. But with a team that worked well together, led by 6-foot-3 senior center Val Gillion, USF went where no USF women's team had made it before.

"We were a little unprepared for the response to our success this year," said Nepfel. "The response was unbelieveable locally, nationally, even from Honolulu. I think we've given a lot of schools who have been in our situation a lot of hope.

"Our biggest disappointment was that we didn't play better against Connecticut (a 72-44 loss). A lot of people are already asking how we'll do next year. We just want to enjoy this for a while."

The biggest challenge facing the couple may come from the P.C. Police. Political correctness has run into gender equity, with a hot topic the team's oxymoronic nickname.

Dons are Spanish gentlemen or nobles. An article in the school newspaper said the mascot that comes to the women's games looked like an effeminate Zorro or a he-man ballerina.

"We would love to change the name," said Nepfel. "But some of the administration is very proud of the heritage. Mary likes Hilltoppers. And the team used to be the Gray Fog. We're thinking about having a contest to come up with a new name."

Perhaps by the time USF makes its appearance in the 1997 Wahine Classic, the identity crisis will be solved. And the Married ... With Players co-head coaches will have taken their team beyond the Sweet 16.

Cindy Luis is a Star-Bulletin sportswriter. Her column appears weekly.

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