By Leslie Gibson McCarthy
Executive News Editor
Washington University in St. Louis
On Nov. 18, 1989, 25 years ago, the Washington University in St. Louis volleyball team won the Bears sports program's first national championship.
The title match, a 3-0 victory over Ohio Northern University, was played in front of a raucous crowd in the Washington University Field House. It got a lot of attention locally and in volleyball circles, but was just a blip on the national sports scene.
Yet for Washington University, the national title was the start of something big. It was a beginning not only for a volleyball program that would finish the 1989 season with a 39-7 record and win the first of 10 national team titles – including six consecutive championships from 1991-96; it also raised the bar for the entire athletic program moving forward.
From that point on, Bears sports teams would win nine additional national team titles: five in women's basketball, two in men's basketball, and one each in men's tennis and women's cross country.
"Prior to that, we had two individual national champions (in track and field) and the men's soccer team made it to the final four five times (from 1978-87)," says former athletic director John Schael. "Those athletes established the foundation and hope for the future; Teri (Clemens) took it to the next level and the rest is history."
A culture of winning, and it began, sometime between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the declared end of the Cold War, at the WU Field House 25 years ago.
For what they started, and what they achieved, the 1989 women's volleyball team, coached by the indomitable Clemens, will be honored in February 2015 with induction into the Washington University Sports Hall of Fame.
Building a champion
"I remember it like it was yesterday," says Clemens, who was hired in 1985 after building a state championship program at local high school Incarnate Word Academy. At the time of her hiring, she asked Schael what his expectations were…win a national championship within five years was the response.
"She was the only one I ever said that to," Schael says. "I really believed that she could do it, based on her background winning state championships, and her experience. I would never put that onus on anybody unless I truly believed they could do it."
She did exactly that.
How? Hard work, sheer determination, recruiting prowess, and, according to Clemens, the influence of then-Chancellor William H. Danforth. "I remember asking him, 'Why do you stay here?' " she recalls. "He said, 'It's an old-fashioned thing called commitment.'
"Commitment. That stuck with me forever," Clemens says. "I adore him still. He helped bring a new spirit to the university through the volleyball team."
Clemens also sought out the advice and counsel of fellow coaches. "I kind of felt like we were all in this together to build a national program," Clemens says. "We already had good coaches here," she says, citing basketball coach Mark Edwards, who served as a mentor and recruiting guru when she arrived, and then became a friend.
And Joe Worlund, who was then-intramural director and would eventually become associate director of athletics. "Joe became my assistant the second year," she says, "and we stayed together for my entire career. He knew the students well and was extremely loyal. We were a great team."
Clemens' point is well taken. It was never just about her or the volleyball team. "It was Dr. Danforth and John Schael and all of us developing this athletic program," she says.
"Nationally, John was able to get high class, highly-competitive coaches and I was glad to be a part of it," she says. "It was that kind of leadership. It was inevitable that you could win here."
Says Schael: "It took organization, a blueprint for success, establishing realistic goals and creating the environment for the players to succeed. She did all that, and others noticed. She crafted her own program, and others followed."
Building a program
It didn't start out so conspicuously. Clemens recalled her first match as coach the fall of 1985, a setting that made it quite clear where the program was and how far it had to go. "At that first match, we had maybe 25 people in the stands – and 15 were from my family," she says. "I knew right then what I had to do. I went home and made a five-year plan."
She remembers the plan, because she wrote it on a piece of paper and taped it to the wall next to her desk, and it stayed there through her entire tenure as coach from 1985-98, when she stepped aside due to health issues. It read:
This year we will be known within the university community. Then we will be known locally. Then we will be known regionally. Then we will be known nationally.
"I taped that to my office wall and kept it there," she said.
Clemens did exactly what she set out to do, through first recruiting top players like Lori Nishikawa, Kathy Bersett and Brooke Hortin, and through sheer determination and force of will – a work ethic echoed by the student athletes she recruited.
"We always had one motto," Clemens says. " 'In this world of give and take, there are few who are willing to give what it takes.' That's the motto through every team we had all 14 years. And my six years at Incarnate Word also."
That championship weekend
When asked if she remembered a moment from that championship season that stood out, Clemens said the "moment" actually occurred a few seasons before – in 1986 when the team won 19 matches in a row and finished with a 43-8 record — and didn't get a bid to the NCAA tournament.
"We knew it was a travesty," Clemens says. "People still didn't know who we were. We earned it but didn't get it. We were really mad."
So Clemens sought to solve the problem – schedule a match with Ohio Northern, whose coach was the head of the selection committee.
"I called her up and she wouldn't play us," Clemens says. "I said, 'We won the last 19 games of the season, how could we prove ourselves more than that?' And she said, 'We'll try to catch you next year.' And I said, 'You bet you will.' "
Turns out, the Bears would earn a national tournament bid the next year and meet Ohio Northern in the regional semifinal – and defeat them on their home court.
Says Clemens, "I remember thinking, 'You don't know who we are?' Well you're about to."
And so was the rest of the country. The Bears would lose to Illinois Benedictine in the regional final in '87. Another bid in '88 and another regional final loss the next season set the stage for 1989.
The Bears stormed through the two-week national competition with barely a blemish. Playing the opening round of the tournament in St. Joseph, Minn., Wash U lost the first game against Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but rallied to win the next three. The team advanced to its first Final Four by sweeping regional host College of St. Benedict, the sixth-ranked team in Division III.
The university was selected to host the Final Four, and the Bears were gracious hosts throughout the week – up until game time. In the national semifinal, Wash U whitewashed No. 3 Juniata College, 3-0, setting up a national championship match with old nemesis Ohio Northern.
And in front of a spirited crowd – and then some – the Bears defeated Ohio Northern 15-10, 15-9 and 15-11. The place erupted into cheers enhanced by streamers of silly string.
"We smoked them three straight," Clemens says, "and we did it at home in front of 2,000 fans who packed the place. Students were all over that Field House."
With the victory, Clemens became the first woman to coach a national champion in NCAA Division III volleyball since the inception of the tournament in 1981.
And it was just the beginning. Those goals Clemens taped to her wall? There was one more.
"And then we will maintain. That's what I wrote last," she says.
"And then we will maintain."