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Don Owen: While NKU celebrates 50 years of sports, check out this top 50 in Norse athletics history

For those who aren’t aware, Northern Kentucky University is celebrating its 50th anniversary of intercollegiate athletics during the 2020-21 academic year.

NKU’s fall sports have been sidelined by the pandemic, but there is guarded optimism that basketball season will proceed in November or December. In the meantime, the 50th anniversary of NKU sports is an excellent diversion from all the current negativism surrounding the planet.

It’s also a chance to celebrate the numerous outstanding achievements that have taken place in Highland Heights since 1971. And there have been plenty. So many, in fact, it’s difficult to place them in order of significance.

The NKU women’s basketball team poses for photos after capturing the 2000 NCAA Division II national championship. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

But I tried about 3½ years ago.

I received a pair of calls in early 2017 regarding the 50th anniversary of NKU, which was founded in 1968. A committee had been formed to put together a list of the 50 top accomplishments/moments for NKU sports, even though the athletics department actually wasn’t started until 1971.

Since I’d previously worked at NKU in media relations for 21 years, I agreed to help out. So I did research and put together a list — in order of significance from my perspective and a rating system I developed — of the top 50 accomplishments/moments from 1971-2017.

I assumed there would be a vote by the committee at some point. I thought a top 50 list would be released publicly either in 2018 (NKU’s 50th anniversary) or in 2020-21 (the NKU athletics department’s 50th anniversary).

I was wrong. No list in order of significance was ever revealed. Which is fine. I understand the politics of the collegiate world. Do I ever. Picking one accomplishment or moment over the other is a no-no.

Hurt feelings loom. Everyone has a favorite sport. Egos are fragile. Comparing different eras in sports is a sure way to ignite an argument — especially in college athletics.

But I don’t work in the collegiate world. Not anymore. So here’s the list I submitted of the top 50 accomplishments/moments from 1971-2017. It’s just bullet points and each is very brief.

And, as you will see, the list does not include the NKU men’s basketball Horizon League Tournament championship from 2017. Why? Very simple: because the Norse won that event about a month after I originally turned in this list. Otherwise, it would’ve definitely been in the top 50. Maybe even in the top 10.

So don’t get angry if you disagree with my rankings. Remember, the 50th anniversary of NKU sports is an excellent diversion from all the negativism surrounding the planet.


1. Paul Cluxton’s perfection from free-throw line (94-for-94) for an entire season in 1996-97 — Cluxton is the only player in college basketball history to do this with enough attempts to qualify for the national statistics.

NKU’s Paul Cluxton made all 94 of his free-throw attempts in 1996-97 to set a national record. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Yes, he made all 94 of his attempts. Nationally relevant, still talked about, will never be broken, probably never equaled. It put NKU on the national map (i.e., parallels Chaminade’s victory over No. 1 Virginia and Ralph Sampson) in the pre-Division I era.

2. NKU’s first national championship — The Norse women’s basketball team in 2000. NKU captured the NCAA Division II national title in Pine Bluff, Ark. (Nationally and regionally significant because it was NKU’s first national title).

3. NKU softball winning 55 consecutive games to begin 2005 season — NKU did something never before done at any level of collegiate softball, Division I, II, III, or the NAIA. It’s actually an incredible story for many reasons — click here for more on that supernatural season.

4. The birth of then-Northern Kentucky State College sports on Nov. 12, 1971, with the first basketball game against Calvary College. NKSC had no home facility, and the game was played in a gym that no longer exists (old Newport High School’s Cats’ Den) against a now-defunct school. NKSC wins, 109-65.

5. NKU declares for Division I athletics reclassification in 2011 and joins the Atlantic Sun Conference.

6. NKU opens The Bank of Kentucky Center in 2008 with an exhibition basketball doubleheader against Louisville, with more than 8,000 spectators in attendance.

7. NKU men’s basketball advances to the national championship game in both 1996 and 1997. The Norse appeared on national TV (CBS) two straight years as a result of advancing to the title game.

8. The implementation of women’s basketball and volleyball programs at NKSC in the 1970s, and their immediate success in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), both regionally and nationally. Peggy Ludwig was NKSC’s first superstar player in volleyball and earned an invite to the U.S. Olympic tryouts.

9. NKU women’s basketball wins its second national championship in 2008.

10. On March 4, 1995, the NKU men’s basketball team captures its first Great Lakes Valley Conference title with a 100-99 triple-overtime win over Kentucky Wesleyan before a sellout crowd in Regents Hall.

11. NKU men’s soccer wins the NCAA Division II national championship in 2010. The Norse defeat Rollins (Fla.) by a 3–2 score in a driving snowstorm in Louisville to capture the national title.

NKU men’s soccer players celebrate after winning the 2010 NCAA Division II national championship. The Norse defeated Rollins (Fla.) by a 3–2 score in a driving snowstorm.

12. First game in Regents Hall on Nov. 27, 1972, NKSC men’s basketball vs. powerful UT-Chattanooga in front of 1,500 fans. UT-Chattanooga holds off NKSC for an 84-80 win.

13. NKU men’s basketball earns the No. 1 seed and is selected to host the 1995 NCAA Division II Great Lakes Regional at Riverfront Coliseum.

14. NKU women’s basketball advances to NCAA Division II Final Four in 1987.

15. Michelle Cottrell becomes NKU’s all-time career scoring leader (2,241 points) and is named NCAA Division II National Player of the Year for the second time.

16. NKU volleyball hosts NCAA Tournament in 1981, the first season the NCAA sponsors women’s sports following the AIAW era.

17. NKU volleyball and women’s soccer both win regional championships in 1999 and advance to the national semifinals in each sport.

18. NKU men’s basketball’s win over Division I Xavier in 1978. The Norsemen also upset Xavier the following season.

19. NKU joins the Horizon League in 2015, leaving the Atlantic Sun Conference after three years.

20. NKU women’s soccer advances to the 2000 NCAA Division II national championship game and loses to UC San Diego in the final seconds, 2-1. NKU earned a berth in the NCAA Division II national championship game by pounding top-ranked Barry (Fla.), 5-1, in the national semifinals.

NKU women’s soccer player Bessie Black (14) battles for control of the ball during the 2000 NCAA Division II national championship game against UC San Diego.

21. NKU baseball wins regional title on May 17, 1979, with a 9-2 win against Bellarmine in the Great Lakes Regional championship game. Dave Conradi tossed a four-hitter and also hit a three-run double for NKU.

22. On March 6, 1999, Michelle Cottrell grabs an offensive rebound and scores as time expires to give NKU a 65-63 win over Michigan Tech in the NCAA II Great Lakes Regional championship game and a trip to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight. After a timeout, NKU works the ball into Shannon Smith, who misses a jumper from the right side of the lane. Cottrell, however, snares the offensive rebound and muscles up a shot with one second remaining that goes through the basket as time expires.

23. NKU baseball wins its first-ever GLVC Tournament championship in 2002 at the Bill Aker Baseball Complex. Jason Martin sets the NKU record for career hits with RBI single in the eighth inning to snap a 3-3 tie with Saint Joseph’s in the championship game as NKU goes on to win, 5-3.

24. NKU volleyball competes at the 1977 AIAW nationals in Provo, Utah. NKU finished with a school-record 41 victories.

25. NKU women’s soccer wins its first Horizon League championship in 2016 and earns the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in Division I.

26. The NKU women’s tennis team wins its fourth straight GLVC championship behind four-time GLVC Player of the Year Jamie O’Hara, who finishes unbeaten (44-0) in her career against GLVC opponents.

27. NKU volleyball player Kerry Lewin sets the NCAA all-time record for service aces in a career in 1995. Lewin also leads NKU to the GLVC title in 1995.

Kerry Lewin (center) takes a final bow in front of the home fans after NKU wins the 1995 GLVC Tournament championship in Regents Hall. The Norse defeated IPFW, 11-15, 15-7, 15-7, 15-7, to capture the GLVC title for the first time since 1985. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

28. NKU baseball advances to the 1985 NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho.

29. NKU cross country runner Johnny Lott places 19th nationally in the 1979 NCAA Division II finals. He also becomes the first athlete in NKU history to earn All-America honors.

30. NKU volleyball wins the GLVC title in 1985, the Norse’s first-ever GLVC championship in any sport.

31. NKU men’s basketball halts Findlay’s 59-game home winning streak – the nation’s longest – with a 60-56 victory over the Oilers in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II Great Lakes Region Tournament in 2007.

32. NKU baseball earns an NCAA Division II berth in 1977, wins a school-record 49 games.

33. NKU volleyball rallies to defeat national powerhouse Ohio State, 8-15, 15-12, 4-15, 15-9, 15-12, in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 23, 1979. Ohio State would finish 37-14 in 1979 and sixth nationally in the AIAW Tournament.

34. NKU men’s basketball earns its first-ever NCAA Division II Tournament berth in 1978. The Norsemen also notch the first 20-win season in program history, finishing 20-8.

35. On Feb. 27, 1988, Saint Joseph’s outlasts the NKU women’s basketball team 131-130 in five overtimes in Rensselaer, Ind. The five overtimes are an NCAA record for women’s basketball at the time.

Julie Stanley (jumping in the center of the lane) and Michele Tuchfarber (jumping at the free-throw line) celebrate after Michelle Cottrell’s shot goes through the basket as time expires to give NKU a 65-63 win over Michigan Tech in the 1999 regional championship game.

36. Mike Kelsey scores an NKU-record 50 points against Indianapolis in 2004. Kelsey is the first NKU basketball player, male or female, to score 50 points in a game.

37. NKU men’s soccer wins GLVC back-to-back titles in 1992 and 1993, adds another in 1995 for three championships in four years.

38. Retiring NKU men’s basketball head coach Ken Shields, in his final home appearance, guides his team to a 93-90 triple-overtime win over 11th-ranked Lewis in Regents Hall on Feb. 14, 2004.

39. The NKU baseball team captures the 2008 GLVC Tournament championship with a 15-4 win over Saint Joseph’s at Sauget, Ill., the Norse’s fourth GLVC Tournament crown in six years. NKU also won tournament titles in 2002, 2004, 2006 — all even-numbered years.

40. NKU men’s golf reaches the NCAA Division II national finals in both 1995 and 1996, and Norse golfer Tom Walters posts a second-place finish individually in 1996.

41. NKU men’s basketball player Derek Fields is named GLVC Player of the Year and NCAA Division II All-American in 1989.

42. NKU cross country standout Drew Harris places 16th nationally at the NCAA Division II national finals in 2009 at Evansville, Ind., to earn All-America honors.

NKU golfer Kim Keyer-Scott in 2003.

43. NKU women’s golfer Kim Keyer-Scott places fifth individually at the 2003 NCAA Division II nationals. Keyer-Scott actually led the field after the opening two round and finishes at 310 (+18) to take fifth place nationally, the best in NKU women’s golf history.

44. NKU men’s tennis captures the 1986 GLVC championship – the first men’s GLVC title in school history.

45. On Feb. 22, 1990, Valerie Gaerke hits a short jumper with one second remaining as the NKU women’s basketball team knocks off previously unbeaten Saint Joseph’s, 82-80, in Regents Hall, halting the Lady Pumas’ winning streak at 24. It is the only loss in the regular season for Saint Joseph’s.

46. NKU men’s soccer advances to the 2008 NCAA Division II Final Four for the first time in program history.

47. NKU women’s basketball player Casse Mogan scores a school-record 37 points against Saint Joseph’s on Dec. 1, 2011, in a 106-101 road victory. Mogan’s 37 points eclipsed the previous NKU record of 36, set by Peggy Vincent in 1977.

48. Greg Phelia breaks the previous NKU single-game scoring record of 39 by pouring in 43 points against Kentucky Wesleyan in Regents Hall in 1992, a 114-109 win in double overtime. Phelia’s scoring outburst will remain the NKU record for the next 12 years.

49. On April 5, 1975, right-hander Dale Klare throws the first no-hitter in NKSC baseball history during a 2-0 win over Xavier in the first game of a doubleheader. Klare struck out three and walked just two.

50. On Nov. 21, 2003, the NKU volleyball team stuns previously unbeaten and top-seeded Northern Michigan, 30-27, 29-31, 30-22, 30-28, at Marquette, Mich., in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II Great Lakes Region Tournament.

NKU’s Michael Holder (27) celebrates after scoring the winning goal against Rollins in the 2010 NCAA Division II national championship game. NKU defeated Rollins in a driving snowstorm by a 3-2 score in Louisville on Dec. 4, 2010.

The 1996-97 NKU men’s basketball team repeated as Great Lakes Region champions and advanced to the NCAA Division II national championship game for the second straight season. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

NKU prepares for its opening game in the 1985 NAIA World Series at Lewiston, Idaho.

Atlantic Sun Conference commissioner Ted Gumbart (right) speaks at the 2011 press conference in which NKU declared for NCAA Division I reclassification. Former NKU president Dr. James Votruba (center) and Board of Regents member Terry Mann (left) are also pictured. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

The NKU men’s basketball team earned its first-ever NCAA Division II Tournament berth during the 1977-78 season. The Norsemen also notched the first 20-win season in program history.

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

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