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Don Owen: Seeking a national title, unbeaten San Diego State desperately needs a loss — just ask NKU

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be writing about San Diego State unless the Aztecs were playing Northern Kentucky University on the basketball court.

But this is the exception since San Diego State is unbeaten (25-0) and ranked No. 4 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 Poll. The Aztecs are seeking their first-ever national championship and are the only remaining unbeaten college basketball team.

They’re steamrolling their opponents. They’re playing in front of sellout crowds at Viejas Arena. They’re the class of the Mountain West Conference. They’ve even had former San Diego State All-American and current NBA star Kawhi Leonard in attendance at a home game while retiring his jersey.

San Diego State’s Yanni Wetzell throws down a dunk earlier this season. (Photo by Derrick Tuskan/SDSU)

So how does this have anything at all to do with NKU sports, you ask?

Plenty. It’s very simple: San Diego State desperately needs a loss. That is, if the Aztecs are serious about contending for a national championship in March. If San Diego State enters the NCAA Tournament unbeaten, forget those national title hopes. Even if the Aztecs are indeed the best team in the nation.

Just ask NKU. Or, to be more precise, ask those who were associated with the 2005 NKU softball team.

The 2005 NKU squad set collegiate softball records with a 55-0 start. The Norse steamrolled their way to both the Great Lakes Valley Conference and Great Lakes Regional championships en route to the NCAA Division II World Series in Salem, Va.

NKU featured National Player of the Year Krystal Lewallen, a pitcher who dominated the opposition to such a degree that a shutout became an expectation. If she hurled a no-hitter, it received polite applause. That’s how dominant Lewallen was in 2005.

The Norse entered the World Series with a 53-0 record. They knocked off Le Moyne (N.Y.) in the opener, then defeated St. Mary’s (Texas) to improve to a mind-boggling 55-0 — the only collegiate softball team to ever win 55 straight games in a season. They were, without question, the best team in the nation.

All they needed was two more wins to bring home the NCAA Division II national championship with a perfect mark. Problem is, NKU carried a gigantic target on its uniforms. Like a No. 55-and-Oh target.

The pressure was mounting. Everyone was talking about the perfect season — something never done at any level of collegiate softball. Even the national media took notice of NKU’s quest for perfection.

That improbable journey, however, came to an abrupt end on a Sunday afternoon in May.

Krystal Lewallen led NKU to a 55-0 start in 2005, but the Norse fell short of a national championship.

The streak ended at 55, as Lynn (Fla.) handed NKU a 1-0 defeat in the winner’s bracket to end the run at perfection. That’s the same Lynn program that later vacated the 2005 Division II national championship after the NCAA discovered then-head coach Thomas Macera had made improper payments to players.

Stunned by the loss to Lynn, NKU absorbed a second loss that same afternoon in the double-elimination tournament, falling to Kennesaw State by a 6-0 score. The players didn’t react well to the loss to Lynn. They hadn’t lost the entire season.

Now, in one day, NKU lost twice and finished with a 55-2 record. Despite all the records and attention, the Norse were denied the NCAA title.

Disappointing? Absolutely. Shocking? Not at all. Several of us had mused that after setting the collegiate record for most consecutive wins in April, maybe a loss in the double-elimination GLVC Tournament might be a good thing. It would relieve any pressure of being unbeaten heading into the postseason.

After all, NKU had the No. 1 seed for the regional and the hosting rights wrapped up. One loss wouldn’t hurt anything at that point in the season.

Of course, players and coaches don’t see it that way. And rightfully so. They compete to win every game.

If the NKU softball history lesson isn’t enough, fast-forward to Wichita State men’s basketball during the 2013-14 season. The Shockers entered the NCAA Tournament unbeaten (34-0) and ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Shockers won their first game in March Madness, but Wichita State was eliminated two days later by No. 8 seed Kentucky.

You have to go back to 1976 to find the last unbeaten men’s basketball team to win the NCAA Tournament title, that being Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. UNLV almost pulled off the perfect season during 1990-91, but the Runnin’ Rebels lost in the Final Four and ended with a 34-1 mark. UNLV, coincidentally, is also now a member of the Mountain West Conference — which includes unbeaten San Diego State.

Take note, San Diego State. And hope your first loss doesn’t take place in the middle of March.

NKU set a collegiate softball record by winning 55 consecutive games during the 2005 season en route to the NCAA Division II World Series.

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

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