First To The Big Dance

First To The Big Dance

Stags with trophy

Veteran players of the Class of ’88: Trish Barrett (No. 4), Dana Pellegrino (No. 10), Terry Voegler (No. 44), and Tasia Turkalo (No. 20) celebrate with teammates upon clinching the MAAC Championship.

The 1987-88 women’s basketball team defied the odds, won the MAAC, and became the first Fairfield wAomen’s team to go the NCAAs.

We grew as a unit because we were prepared. We played the best. We never backed down from any competition because we felt we were just as talented as anyone.

— Lisa Mikelic '91

At halftime, the MAAC tournament championship game was over. Or, at least in the minds of the LaSalle women’s basketball team, it was.

Just before the first-half buzzer, Jennifer Snyder hit a 3-pointer to give the Explorers a double-digit lead. LaSalle had held Fairfield to less than 20 points, had them shooting 25 percent from the floor, and had forced them into 14 turnovers. The Stags’ opponents believed a ticket to the NCAA tournament was already in their grasp.

The cheering and the laughter coming from the LaSalle locker room could be heard loud and clear through the wall that separated the Stags’ locker room from the Explorers. The halftime celebration was more than enough to raise the hackles of the Fairfield players.

“I don’t remember a lot about the game, but I remember at halftime, they thought the game was won,” senior guard Trish Barrett ’88 said. “They felt like they had it, but in our eyes, it wasn’t anywhere close to being over. That kind of gave us extra motivation. We knew we were going to keep fighting.”

“You know what it was? We knew we weren’t playing our best, I think that was more of it,” senior guard Dana Pellegrino ‘88 said. “As much as they were celebrating, it wasn’t because of what they were doing, it was because of what we weren’t doing. I think that motivated us a lot.”

All season long, Fairfield’s success had been based on hard work, team play, and chemistry. An intense non-conference schedule had prepped the Stags for MAAC play and now, at the beginning of March Madness, Fairfield found itself just 20 minutes away from its first- ever trip to the NCAA tournament.

It turned out to be the most incredible 20 minutes in Fairfield University women’s basketball history. 

Rewind a bit. By the time the four newest members of the Fairfield University women’s basketball team arrived on campus – fresh- men Tricia Sacca ’91, Shanna Lewis ’91, Lisa Mikelic ’91, and Teresa Maguire ’91 – head coach Dianne Nolan had already assembled a solid core of veteran players, including seniors Barrett, Pellegrino, Tasia Turkalo ’88, and Terry Voegler ’88. There was a junior, Cheryl Trumbo ’89 and sophomores Kathy Gailor ’90, Renita Pritchett ’90, Tabitha Brickhouse ’90, and Barbara Robb ’90. Together, there was talent, experience, depth.

And toughness.

“They were all as tough as nails,” Nolan said. “One through 11 ... amazing. They cared about each other.”

“Great girls, great teammates,” added Turkalo. “Wonderful, hard-working, smart, committed.”

According to Pellegrino, it was the old Aretha Franklin adage R-E-S-P-E-C-T that set the groundwork for success that season.

“There was no drama. It was all about working together and doing what was best for the team,” she said. “We had great chemis- try. Our bus driver Don, he’d play music for us and he always played the song “We Are Family,” and that’s what we were – family. Not only the upperclassmen but the fresh- men, they were all great players and great people. We made each other work hard.”

The motto for the season was “On a Mission.” It originated from a scheduling mix-up in the previous season, when the Stags played one too many regular season games and were disqualified from playing in the 1986-87 MAAC tournament. That disappointment was the driving force of their mission to make the MAAC tournament the next year.

 Ben Cawley ’96 walks with Becky, a two-year-old Labrador retriever, in the Guiding Eyes training program.

No. 23 Tricia Sacca ’91 gets past the defense in Alumni Hall.

The regular 1987-88 sea- son opened in Seattle with a game against Washington of the Pac- 10, a team that had gone 23-7 the previous year and had participated in the NCAA tourna- ment. Playing in front of almost 2,000 peo- ple at the Edmundson Pavilion, Fairfield fell by a 73-59 score. 

“I didn’t know what the hell I was do- ing,” Sacca said. “I’d never been to the West Coast in my life. I’d never played in front of so many people. I remember Dianne coming down the bench to put me in the game and I didn’t get up. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m not going into this game.’What did I get myself into? I was just trying to survive.” 

The next night against Eastern Washington, Fairfield found the win column, beating the Eagles 81-62. A win at Central Connecticut, home wins against Rider and Vermont, along with another road win at Iona, lifted the Stags to a 5-1 start.

But Fairfield dropped both games in the Wildcat Christmas Classic at Villanova to Notre Dame and Siena and then lost at Brigham Young and Utah to fall back to .500 before righting the ship with wins against Hartford and New Hampshire.

“What I remember about BYU and Utah was, there was a big snowstorm going on while we were there and the bus had to drive through it,” Pellegrino said. “It was crazy. But those games toughened us up and that’s a tribute to Dianne. She really did try to have us pre- pared and challenged. We were ready for the conference.”

A loss to LaSalle opened MAAC play, but Fairfield reeled off eight wins in its next nine games – again, losing to LaSalle – to stand at 15-7 overall and 8-2 in the conference. 

“We grew as a unit because we were pre- pared,” said Mikelic, who averaged 12.9 points and 6.6 rebounds. “We played the best. We never backed down from any competition be- cause we felt we were just as talented as any- one. We were prepared for MAAC play. We gained from each loss. The MAAC was really competitive, we fought every night.”

“That whole conference, looking back at it, it was one of the top conferences in the country,” Sacca said. “Fordham, St. Peter’s, LaSalle, Holy Cross, Iona, Manhattan – it was just unbelievable women’s basketball. Everyone was good.”

Fairfield stumbled against both Holy Cross and Manhattan before beating Cleveland State in a non-conference game to finish the regu- lar season and enter MAAC tournament play with a 16-9 record and an 8-4 conference mark.

In the MAAC quarterfinals, the Stags took care of Fordham, winning 80-66 as Sacca scored 17 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. Mikelic, the MAAC Rookie of the Year, scored 18 points, had six steals and four as- sists, and Shanna Lewis – who had scored just 47 points all season – chipped in with 11 points on 5 for 7 shooting from the floor.

The next day against Holy Cross in the semifinals, it was Turkalo’s time to shine as she scored 22 points to lead five players in double figures. “I was a scorer and a rebounder; those were my two main jobs,” Turkalo said. “Those were the things I knew I had to get done.”

Lasalle was the regular season conference champion, entering the MAAC championship game at the Westchester (N.Y.) Civic Center. They had already beaten Fairfield twice in conference play, including a 19-point spanking in Philidelphia. They were 25-3 and ranked 20th in the Associated Press women’s basketball poll. 

After holding the Stags to just 25 percent shooting from the floor and forcing those 14 turnovers, LaSalle went into the locker room celebrating their 29-18 lead, thanks to Snyder’s 3-point buzzer beater.

“They hit a 3-pointer right before halftime and I remember thinking we’re in trouble,” Sacca said. “But then, there’s no substitute for seniors and leadership. We had both. I remember listening to Dana and Tasia and Trish at halftime and thinking I’m going to follow their lead.”

“I didn’t have a good first half at all,” Pellegrino said; she had managed just two points. “And my thinking was to keep going at them. All season long we’d never given up and we weren’t going to do that now.”

Pellegrino hit a 3 to open the second half, getting Fairfield back within striking distance. But over the next 13 minutes, Fairfield could get no closer. LaSalle maintained a comfort- able lead, 47-39 with 6:45 to play. Both Mikelic and Sacca were on the bench with four fouls, but Terry Voegler and Shanna Lewis stepped up to give Nolan some solid defense and more than enough toughness.

“Terry Voegler was tremendous,” Mikelic said. “I can still see her making those two bas- kets in my mind.”

Down a point with just over two minutes left and Mikelic on the Stags bench after foul- ing out, it was Voegler that gave Fairfield the lead at 51-50, scoring on a short jumper in the lane. “I remember she (Voegler) was probably the most improbable hero of that champion- ship,” Sacca said. “That’s the beauty of col- lege sports. Normally, she’s probably not even in the game at that point, but Lisa had fouled out so she was in there.”

On the next possession, LaSalle looked to take the lead but Sacca stepped out and cut off the passing lane – forcing a crucial turnover. 

 Cawley, Becky, and pals enjoy a little down time.

No. 33 Cheryl Trumbo races to hug Tricia Sacca.

With 1:16 left, Sacca scored to make to 53- 50 Fairfield. Another Explorers turnover gave Fairfield back the ball and Pellegrino threw a long pass to Voegler; breaking for the basket, she scored to finish a game-ending 11-0 run for Fairfield.

“It was one of the most exciting endings to a game that I’ve ever been involved with,” Pellegrino said.

Pellegrino led the way with 18 points – 16 coming in the second half – while adding three assists and three steals. Voegler and Barrett each scored eight points while Sacca and Turkalo both had seven points and Sacca had 13 rebounds.

The Stags didn’t have to travel far to face its first-round NCAA opponent, making the hour-long bus ride over the Whitestone Bridge to Queens, N.Y. to face the St. John’s Red Storm. “I remember watching the draw and as a freshman, I didn’t know what to expect,” Mikelic said. “No one had ever been to the NCAAs before. It was all new.”

 Ben Cawley ’96 walks with Becky, a two-year-old Labrador retriever, in the Guiding Eyes training program.

No. 24 Lisa Mikelic ’91 takes a shot.

At halftime, Fairfield trailed St. John’s 43-32 but the Stags rallied to pull within 61-53 with 7:32 to play. That was as close as they got; the Red Storm won 83-70.

“I don’t think they were that much better than us, but we might have gotten a little too caught up in playing in the NCAAs. I don’t think we came out as strong as we could have,” Mikelic said. 

There is a photo, black and white, of the Fairfield celebration after beating LaSalle for the MAAC title. Both Sacca and Turkalo have their arms raised high, preparing to hug each other. Pellegrino is turning to embrace Barrett, while off to the right, Voegler is start- ing to run off the court, heading to kiss her boyfriend, as the story goes. It is a moment forever frozen in time and one that Pellegrino still remembers clear as day.

“Time files ... it absolutely boggles my mind,” she said. “It was an amazing feeling... and to experience it? Look at that picture – you see all our hands in the air and we’re all looking around to hug somebody and cel- ebrate ... I’m getting chills thinking about it. It was awesome.”

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Alumni Profile: Joe Sauvageau ’79

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Alumni Profile: Colleen Gibson '09

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