Sept. 29, 2013
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Lori Johnson Cota calls herself an "old lady" now. Molly Cameron Hossack is convinced that someone needs to re-calculate, "because I don't think there's any way it's been 15 years."
But calculate and re-calculate all you want, it really has been 15 years since those two were part of Baylor's first Big 12 Conference championship in any sport.
A soccer program still in its infancy - then-head coach Randy Waldrum had started it from scratch just two years earlier - shocked the soccer world when it upset ninth-ranked Nebraska, 1-0, on Nov. 1, 1998, to clinch the conference title with a freshman fill-in making her first start in goal.
"I don't know how to explain it," said Courtney Saunders Leone, who scored the only goal on a feed from Hossack just 8 ½ minutes into the second half. "It was kind of like time just stopped for a second."
Fifteen years later - and yes, Molly, it has been 15 years - the memories of Baylor's first Big 12 championship haven't faded one bit. If anything, like fine wine, they've improved with age.
"Looking back on it now, there were a lot of experiences in college that I didn't appreciate enough," said Cota, part of the back-line defense that shut out the Cornhuskers. "No pun intended, but now that I can go back and actually see it set in stone makes it more real."
"Think about it, our program had only existed for three years," said Nikki Hales Pipes, a junior center midfielder on that '98 team. "We went into that season and knocked off A&M and tied Texas and then turned around and beat Nebraska - and, to top it off, without Dawn (Greathouse) and with a freshman goalkeeper. You look back on it now and go, `Wow! We really did something there.'''
In their own way, that group of young overachievers set the stage for an upstart Baylor program to win 49 more Big 12 championships in the next 15 years and national championships in women's basketball, men's tennis and equestrian.
"That's just really cool to be a part of a legacy of beginning championships for Baylor," Cota said.
As crazy it might seem now, that team expected to win - even without its All-American goalkeeper.
"Even though it was obviously a huge opponent that we had never beaten, we never felt defeated," Hossack said. "And even with Dawn being hurt, that was just a little extra motivation. Every play that happened where our goalkeeper made a save or we blocked a shot or whatever, it just fueled us even more. It was like, `OK, they didn't score there.' It was like every single play just added more fuel to the fire."
The building of that championship team began when Baylor officially added women's soccer as an intercollegiate sport in 1995 and hired Waldrum from the University of Tulsa, where he coached both the men's and women's teams.
"It's amazing as late as he got the job - he didn't have a full year to recruit us - but he was able to bring in a group that we all sort of clicked together right away," said Pipes, part of Waldrum's first signing class.
"Getting Nikki was like signing a blue-chip football recruit," Waldrum told the Waco Tribune-Herald in a 1998 story after the championship. "It gave us instant credibility. Landing her led to us getting Courtney and Molly. When we won the Big 12 championship, I was as happy for her as anyone, because she was the first."
Fifteen years later, Saunders Leone (69), Cameron Hossack (67) and Hales Pipes (35) still rank as the top three goal scorers in school history.
"There was just something so different about that group," Hossack said. "I can't even really explain it. But I think the fact that we all came in at the same time - there was no seniority established, we were all freshmen - it was just a level playing field from the beginning. And Randy is such a good coach, he just has a way of bringing out the best in each of his players, whatever that may be. I felt like a whole different player when I got on this team."
And it wasn't even a huge building process. As freshmen, that group didn't lose in its first 11 games and finished a phenomenal 17-3-1, taking third place in the Big 12. The Bears' only losses in league play were to Nebraska and A&M, and they took the Aggies to overtime in a 5-4 semifinal loss at the Big 12 Tournament that year.
"Looking back, we were extremely naïve," Saunders Leone said. "Our second year, we played Oklahoma - and Oklahoma had a horrendous team - and we had a ridiculous number of shots on goal to their one shot on goal and lost, 1-0. Randy told us at the end of that year that if we had won that game, we would have won the regular-season title. It hits me now how important that kind of stuff was. But at that point, you're like, `OK, well, we'll try again next year.'''
After back-to-back third-place finishes in the league and a two-year mark of 31-9-2, the bonding of the team reached a new level when the Bears kicked off 1998 with a preseason training camp in Germany.
"We were stuck together, through traveling and long flights; a new country, a different language. So we had to have a sense of togetherness," said defender Britt Talley Hill. "When we started playing those German women, we killed them. . . . We came home thinking we are going to go far this year. We realized we were unstoppable."
"We went from having a $5 dinner allowance and driving our own cars to games as a club team, to traveling to Germany and playing against the U.S. National Team and traveling from California to North Carolina and so many places in between," said defender Julie Larsen McCartney, who joined Johnson Cota as the team's only seniors and only holdovers from the club team. "What an amazing experience."
Hossack compared the Germany experience to their first two-a-days as freshmen, when "we stayed at the Holiday Inn, because they didn't have anywhere on campus for us to stay."
"We literally did nothing but eat, sleep and train for two weeks together," she said. "And it was the same way in Germany. We stayed at a fort school, is I think what they called it, and that's where we trained and ate our meals together. As close as we all were, I think it brought us even closer."
That '98 team took its lumps early, including an 0-fer West Coast trip and a 5-0 loss at top-ranked North Carolina. But the Bears also dominated 13th-ranked SMU, 3-1, and shut out Duke, 4-0, on the road.
"I had played club with the now-stars of the Duke team, and we went out and just killed them," said Meghan Crona O'Connor, who was also part of that back-line defense. "Because football is everything in Texas, nobody really took us seriously. They just thought, `Oh, it's just Baylor.' . . . The expectation was to go out win, and the chips will fall how they do."
It seemed, though, that the one chip this team couldn't afford to fall was All-American goalkeeper Dawn Greathouse. A three-time All-Big 12 pick and Baylor soccer's first Hall of Fame inductee, Greathouse still holds career records for most wins (49) and solo shutouts (27).
But 14 minutes into the second half of a 3-0 win over Iowa State, Greathouse went down with a knee injury that would sideline her for the rest of the season.
"For just that moment, you're thinking, `Well, surely she's going to be OK,''' Cota said. "But then we realized how serious it was."
Hales Pipes, who had already played every other position on the field, was summoned to put on goalkeeper gloves and take over in the net for the last 31 minutes of that game against Iowa State.
"That was always kind of a running joke between Rand and I, because I was one of the few players that had played just about every position on the field," she said. "But when he looked at me and told me to get some gloves, I was like, `What?' I didn't think he was serious. . . . I think I only had to catch like two balls. The defense did their job and took care of me."
Two days later, though, Waldrum turned to a freshman goalkeeper that had seen only a handful of minutes in the first 18 games of the season.
Waldrum had considered going with Hales Pipes back in goal, but "luckily it didn't happen," she said, "because I think the result would have been far different. I was a midfielder or a striker, definitely not a goalkeeper. I wouldn't even claim to be a defense. So, thank goodness that was not the option."
Going into what the Tribune-Herald called "the most important game of his tenure," Waldrum called on freshman goalkeeper Megan Jones.
"We had a ton of faith in Megan Jones," Talley Hill said. "Did we miss Dawn? Yes. But we all came together. We all said our defense would be rock-solid, the midfield was going to be rock-slid. And if you're tired, too bad, suck it up. You can sleep the rest of your life. This is it. Just take everything you have and leave it on the field."
According to the newspaper account of the game, Jones had nine saves, "including a pair of spectacular diving stops in a first half played almost entirely on Baylor's end of the field."
It was still a scoreless tie at the half, but the Bears had gotten off zero shots.
Early in the first half, Jones laid out to her left to stop a left-footed rocket by Nebraska's Megan Anderson. And then she "stoned" the Cornhuskers' Becky Preston from point-blank range with less than three minutes left.
"After that first save," Jones said, "everyone on the bench started cheering and that made (the butterflies) go away."
"It was like the whole team was on defense that entire game," Hossack said. "It was like there were three goalkeepers in that net. It was the strangest thing. Saves that I had never seen that goalkeeper make, she was making that day. It was like the stars were just all aligned that day."
Waldrum said Jones was "fabulous" in goal, but he gave the credit to defenders Larsen McCartney, Johnson Cota, Crona O'Connor, Jerri Konlande and Rachel Kacsmaryk Kerbel. "I don't think that group gets nearly enough credit. We always talk about Courtney, Molly and Nikki, but defensively we've played well all year long."
Larsen McCartney called Greathouse's injury a "huge loss, but it also shows the character and resiliency of our team to step it up in her absence."
Scoring the only goal of the game, Saunders Leone took the pass from Cameron Hossack, wheeled to her left and lofted a 25-yard shot that just got over Nebraska goalie Karina LeBlanc, scraping the bottom of the crossbar on the way down and bouncing back into the top of the net.
After scoring the goal, Saunders Leone jumped into Cameron Hossack's arms for a celebratory hug. But the Bears had to survive the next 36 ½ minutes before a team dogpile at the end of the game.
"It was relief that it was finally over, because it was like we were just hanging on from the opening whistle," Hossack said. "Knowing that we didn't have Dawn, who was probably our best player, it was just a very stressful game. And we were just happy to have it over and be able to celebrate and share it with Dawn. I think the first thing most of us did was go over to Dawn."
While admitting that sitting on the sidelines as an athlete is one of the hardest things you can ever do, Greathouse said the Big 12 championship was "not bittersweet at all."
"At the end of the day, it's a team thing," said Greathouse, who has won two national championships as an assistant coach at Notre Dame under Waldrum. "Megan actually played a great game in goal that day. And the rest of the team rallied around her and did fantastic as well. So, there were no hard feelings at that time at all."
As quickly as they got to the top, the fall seemed to be even faster. Still playing without Greathouse, the Bears lost to Missouri, 3-2, in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals and got beat at home by Northwestern, 5-4, in the second round of the NCAA Championships.
And then when Waldrum departed for Notre Dame after the season, the Bears only made one more NCAA Tournament appearance in the next 12 years and suffered through seven consecutive losing seasons under two different coaches before Marci Jobson's arrival in 2008.
Baylor returned to the Big 12 throne room last season when they won the Big 12 Championship title by beating TCU, 4-1, and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the first time before a shootout loss to eventual national champion North Carolina.
"It's nice to have a winning team again to be proud of what we started," Hales Pipes said. "She has brought them so far in such a short amount of time, realistically. She's done a job that is pretty equivalent to what Randy did with us. She's been able to turn that program around and bring them back to the top and surpass a lot of the things that we ever did."
Johnson Cota remembers when Jobson played at SMU and with the U.S. National team: "She was such a beast on the field."
"We really appreciate the respect that she gives to the alumni," Johnson Cota said. "She lets the girls know that this program has been around for a while now. She's building a great legacy."
Asked who would win between the 1998 Big 12 champions and last year's Big 12 Championship squad, Johnson Cota said, "Ooh, you're trying to stir up a little drama."
"I'm approaching 40, and I'm not about to go out there against a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old girls," she said. "In our primes? That's really tough, because I look at their back line, and I'm barely up to their waists. Those girls are huge to me. But if you're asking me who would win, I'm going to say '98, because I'm never going to have to play them, so I can talk a little trash."
This year's 11th-ranked soccer team is off to a 7-0-2 start and opens Big 12 play against Oklahoma (3-6-1) at 7 p.m. Friday at Betty Lou Mays Field.
"I'm really proud to wear the green and gold right now," Cameron Hossack said.