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LOCAL GIRL MAKES GOOD
Jill Lieber
November 28, 1983
Kelli Litsch has led Southwestern Oklahoma State to two NAIA titles
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November 28, 1983

Local Girl Makes Good

Kelli Litsch has led Southwestern Oklahoma State to two NAIA titles

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All this excitement began in early 1981 when Dr. Leonard Campbell, Southwestern's president, decided he wanted a competitive women's basketball program. "We don't do everything comprehensive universities do," said Campbell, "but what we do, we do well."

Southwestern Oklahoma, which has 5,000 students, seceded from the AIAW, joined the NAIA, established six scholarships, and, on April Fools' Day, Campbell hired Loftin, who had an overall record of 243-65 in his 14 years of coaching mostly women's teams—eight at Texas high schools and six at Murray State Junior College in Tishomingo, Okla. Later that afternoon, Litsch, a high school All-America out of Thomas, a town just 17 miles up the road, told Loftin that she was turning down USC and Louisiana Tech to attend Southwestern. "I couldn't leave the people who've been watching me play since second grade," she said.

Loftin knew that assembling the rest of his team wouldn't be quite so easy. Armed with a $400 recruiting budget, the new coach spent much of the next four months on the phone, contacting about 80 prospects. When he wasn't dialing, he was behind the wheel of his 1980 Chevy Citation, combing the Oklahoma and Texas junior colleges. "I ruined that car," says Loftin, who logged 10,000 miles and spent $700 of his own money on gas. "On Thursdays, I'd drive to Dallas to catch summer league games." That's a five-hour round trip. "I'd get home about 3 a.m., and I'd have to teach summer school at eight." No wonder his CB handle is The Road Runner.

But Loftin, who grew up on a 600-acre wheat farm in the Texas panhandle, was searching for a special kind of player. He wanted somebody like him. "When I was 10," he says, "I started playing basketball after school on a dirt court, shooting at a goal I'd tacked up on the chicken house. I wouldn't go in for supper until I had made 500 baskets."

Loftin eventually signed 12 such hardworking women—eight junior-college transfers ("Mostly discontents," he says, "women who wanted a second chance at a degree") and four homegrown freshmen. Never mind that three of the transfers had been out of basketball for a year—they all became starters—and that the freshmen hadn't ever played the five-woman game. ( Oklahoma and Iowa are the only states still playing six women on a team in high school.) A little work would go a long way.

Loftin found Mary Champion attending school, but not playing basketball, at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. She had been a star guard at Connors State Junior College in Warner, Okla. He found Chelly Belanger, another former junior-college player, at Colorado State University. He found two former high school teammates, Pat Jacques, a guard-forward, and Anita Foster, a center, playing in a Dallas summer league. A bank teller and the mother of a 2-year-old son, Tyrone, Foster had attended Stephen F. Austin and Navarro Junior College and wanted to get back into school. But no coach would offer her single-parent housing. "They wanted me to leave my son home," she says. Not Southwestern. The Fosters live in a mobile home parked on the edge of the campus, and Tyrone attends a daycare center at the university.

The Lady Bulldogs opened practice for the 1981-82 season the first week in September. Sometimes they didn't start their drills until 7 p.m., meaning they didn't finish until 9:30. "By that time the cafeteria was closed," Peggy Litsch, Kelli's mother, says, "so they often went without dinner." By the first week in January, the Lady Bulldogs were 11-0 and ranked No. 1. Loftin devastated opponents with his complicated system—six offenses and three defenses. The team averaged 73 points a game and outscored opponents by an average of 12. Weather-ford went whacko. Most of Thomas and Fay turned out to see Litsch. Those who couldn't, watched her on closed-circuit TV. The crowds in Southwestern's gym grew from 300 at the November season opener to 2,000-plus in January. "It was a fairy tale," Loftin says.

So was the '82-83 season. Dee Dee Woodfork, a former Murray State forward who had left school to have a baby (J.D., now two), was the top recruit. "The pressure to win was great," Loftin says. The team averaged 67.1 points and outscored opponents by 12.7. Litsch and Foster were named All-Americas, and Litsch was the NAIA Player of the Year. Three hundred townspeople toasted the team at an appreciation banquet. By season's end the Booster Club was born.

This season, Litsch, Foster, Woodfork and two other returnees are joined by seven newcomers. The Booster Club has raised $6,000. Loftin has three outstanding recruits: Nancy Hafterson, a 6'5" center from Phillips University in Enid, Okla., Carri Hayes, an All-America guard from Connors J.C. and Diana Dees, a guard who once played for Loftin at Murray State. She spent last year working in Wyoming as a pulpwood hauler, living in a tent with her husband.

So, what is the reason for Loftin's success? The team had a 3-0 record at the end of last week and was ranked No. 1 in the country. Could it be the kraut and wienies? "That seems as good a guess as any," says the coach. "He yells a lot," Foster says. Campbell thinks he knows. "An accrediting group recently told me the school has one weakness: Our faculty thinks of itself as parents to the students," he says. "I think that's a strength."

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