This has been a surprising, and memorable season for the basketball coaches at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. David Wells and his wife, Jodie Burton, who form the only husband-wife tandem coaching NCAA basketball on the same campus, have their teams in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Since losing five of its first seven games, Wells' men's team won 16 of its last 18 and finished first in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
With an 18-7 overall record, Wells will lead his Stags into the tournament Thursday at Fayette, Iowa, where they will play Upper Iowa in a first-round game.
"It wasn't just that we lost a lot of games at the start of the season, we weren't playing very good basketball," said Wells, whose team last made the playoffs in 1991. "I would have been shocked if I was told then that we would go on to win the league title."
Led by Kevin Zitar, SCIAC player of the year, the Stags ran away with the title. Zitar averaged 17.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and led the conference with 59.8% shooting.
"Kevin is not a traditional tall post player at 6 feet 5, but he's definitely one of the best inside players on the West Coast in Division III," Wells said. "He's a blue-collar worker, who's excellent in collecting garbage around the basket."
Whenever Wells has needed to talk to someone about this season he has only had to go home to Burton, who coaches the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps women's team.
"We spend a lot of time talking about basketball," Wells said. "She complains about her team and I complain about mine."
Burton's women's team made the Division III tournament last season, but three starters graduated and Burton figured this to be a rebuilding year for the Athenas.
"We definitely felt that this was going to be growing season for us because of the players we lost," said Burton, in her 17th season of coaching on campus. "No way did we anticipate the type of season we've had."
The Athenas finished the regular season 19-6 and shared the SCIAC title with Cal Lutheran. Claremont-Mudd-Scripps then beat Cal Lutheran in a playoff game last Saturday and will play host to La Verne in a first-round Division III playoff game tonight.
Mindy Bagatelos has led the Athenas this season with averages of 14.4 points, 10 rebounds and 1.13 blocked shots a game. Bagatelos also led the SCIAC in shooting at 56% and was among the leaders in free-throw shooting at 74%.
The success of their two basketball teams has helped ease a difficult stretch off the court for Wells and Burton, who have had to deal with the deaths of John Zinda, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps athletic director, and Grayle Howlett, the sports information director
They have also had to cope with illness. Wells learned last year that he had cancer and began chemotherapy last fall. In the last two months, he has had no setbacks and hopes he is in remission.
"There has been a lot of sadness for us this season," Burton said. "Our players have really stayed focused. It's been a rough year that has had a nice ending."
Azusa Pacific will induct seven into the Cougars' athletic hall of fame March 8, among them former NFL star Christian Okoye and Olympic decathlete Dave Johnson.
Also being inducted are three-time Olympic sprinter Innocent Egbunike, All-American basketball player Cedric Reed, All-American linebacker Norm Slosted and former Cougar coaches Alane LeGrand and John Crandall