Combs'' brush with greatness

Combs'' brush with greatness

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Colgate coach Beth Combs called the opportunity to play Tennessee today in the NCAA women''s basketball tournament "a dream come true."

Two hours after today''s 10 a.m. tipoff, she might feel otherwise. But since her once-unheralded program won the Patriot League championship March 10, the former Illini and her Red Raiders have been on a whirlwind tour that won''t be diminished no matter how ugly the score is today.

"The players grew up, and I grew up, watching Pat Summitt and wanting to play for her and emulating what she does," said Combs, in her third season as Colgate''s head coach after serving as an assistant for three seasons. "It''s a fantastic ending to a perfect season for us."

Combs wasn''t being fatalistic. Tennessee is a No. 1 seed, Colgate a No. 16. But the Raiders'' presence in the tournament is what matters, and it''s a journey Combs began at the UI and two area high schools.

Then Beth Spycher, she was a recruited walk-on for Laura Golden''s teams in the late 1980s, earning a scholarship for her sophomore year. You''ll scarcely find her in UI annals, though. She didn''t even get a mention in the team''s media guides, except to note that she played five minutes in the 1988-89 season.

"I was a solid practice player," said Combs, a Decatur native. "As everyone does, they come out of high school a superstar. Then reality sets in. I was given a fantastic opportunity to play Big Ten basketball and be a part of a great institution, (and) my dream growing up, from the seventh grade, was to suit up in an Illini uniform."

In 1991, her final season at Illinois, Combs got to work with the freshman girls'' basketball team at St. Joseph-Ogden, and until 1995, she coached the freshman or junior varsity teams. At the same time, she coached volleyball at Centennial.

"It took off from there," she said. "The bug hits you."

In 1995, she landed a spot on the Eastern Illinois staff and three seasons later joined the Colgate program. She was promoted to head coach for the 2001-02 season, gaining control of a program that had not posted a winning season since 1986-87.

She had an immediate impact, earning Patriot League Coach of the Year honors when Colgate won 14 games, seven in the conference, and set 11 school records.

Injuries were costly in a 9-18 campaign last season, but the Raiders rebounded this season despite adversity. They lost two point guards to injuries, and another guard quit the team. But eight of the team''s 14 players are juniors or seniors, and their maturity is paying off. Colgate is 21-9 (a school record) and playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time.

"This year, coming in, we knew we had the talent. I''ve been starting these kids for three years," Combs said. "They''ve really come a long way. It definitely takes a lot of hard work and commitment from your team, it takes a whole lot of chemistry and a little bit of luck.

"We''re really proud of where we''ve come in three years. Our goal now is to build a tradition and a history here, which is something Colgate University has never had."

Who knows? After today, anything is possible.

You can reach Tony Bleill at (217) 351-5605 or via e-mail at tbleill@news-gazette.com.

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