State of Frenzy
North Dakota is the geographic center of North America, and last Friday night the center of that state's attention was a meeting in Fargo between the defending champs of Division II NCAA women's basketball, the North Dakota State Bison, and this season's No. 1-ranked team, the Fighting Sioux of the University of North Dakota. This is not only the fiercest rivalry in Division II but, on a per capita basis, may also be the most popular basketball matchup anywhere. Some 7,000 people—more than 1% of the state's population of 640,000—showed up for the showdown, and several times that number listened in on the radio as North Dakota beat State 68-62 in a game marked by adrenaline-addled shooting.
What was at stake here? For the visiting Sioux, it wasn't just a 19-game winning streak and the North Central Conference title. And for the Bison, ranked No. 3 in the country last week, it wasn't just the ugly possibility of being swept by their hated upstate rivals ( North Dakota won a 75-74 overtime thriller in Grand Forks last month), a disgrace the Thundering Herd hadn't suffered since 1985. "This is for bragging rights for the whole state," said Sioux junior center and All-America candidate Sheri Kleinsasser, whose 22 points on Friday night went a long way toward guaranteeing the Sioux those rights. "Half my high school in Carrington went to UND, and half went to NDSU. When we lose, I never hear the end of it."
There isn't much else to get wrought up over in flat, cold, windy North Dakota. With no Division I schools and no major league pro teams to distract people, the rivalry between the two Division II schools, separated by just 80 miles of I-29, has long been the focus of rabid local media and fan attention, "in this state you become a Sioux or Bison very early in life," says UND athletic director Terry Wanless. "And the loyalty and pride people attach to that association is tremendous. No one sits on the fence."
The intrastate rivalry that started a hundred years ago with a football game is now most acute in women's basketball, a sport in which both schools have been nationally prominent for a decade. In fact, Friday was the 12th straight time the two teams had met while both were ranked in the Top 10. State has won two national titles—in '91 and '93—and UND has a good chance of winning its first this year. But the teams' national success is almost incidental to Bison and Sioux fans. "Both teams could be 0-12, and we'd still get a crowd of 7,000 people," says Bison business manager Pat Frederickson.
As charged as the rivalry is, the games are surprisingly unsullied by the kind of rowdiness and trash talk that are commonplace elsewhere. In a state where many people still leave their cars and houses unlocked, where strangers actually make eye contact, where the most vicious ethnic slur you'll hear is the joke the Norwegian told about the Swede, true mean-spiritedness is hard to find. Before a game with a notorious trash-talking team last season, State coach Amy Ruley instructed her players to start mouthing off to each other at practice to get used to the jawing. "They all said, 'What do you say?' " Ruley recalls. "They had no idea what to do."
This is not to suggest that everything said on the court Friday was of the " 'Scuse me, sorry" variety or that everything screamed in the stands was printable—or even audible. The roar in the Bison Sports Arena can approach jet-engine decibels when North Dakota is the opponent, which is why Ruley prepares her team for Sioux visits by blasting a tape of radio static over the gym's loudspeaker during practice.
Apparently, that trick didn't work this time. The Bison, who like the Sioux average 83 points a game, scored only 16 points on 17% shooting in the first half. Nerves certainly played a part in that—and small wonder. "For one night, this is the biggest game on the planet," says Bison junior forward Lynette Mund, who first learned to play basketball on a hoop in the hayloft of her family's farm in Milnor, a town of about 700, 50 miles southwest of Fargo. "We spend the whole week thinking about this game. Actually, I've spent my whole life thinking about it. As a girl it was my dream to play in a Bison-Sioux game."
Because a lot of local players share Mund's dream or just don't like the idea of leaving home, North Dakota doesn't send many of its best players out of state. "I tell my friends in Minnesota who are looking at Division I programs that they're missing out," says Bison freshman center Kasey Morlock, Minnesota's Miss Basketball last year, who was recruited by Minnesota, Nebraska and Indiana State. "What I saw at Division I schools was lower attendance and the women's programs taking a backseat to the men's."
Without getting into too many heated recruiting battles, Ruley and Sioux coach Gene Roebuck have been able to field teams using players who come almost exclusively from North Dakota and neighboring Minnesota. This frees the coaches from the daunting task of having to sell their state to outsiders. Imagine the pitch: Well, yes, the windchill might be the worst in the Midwest, but it has to get below minus 80 before anyone really notices.