Kristi Zeller went a long way to reach her first NCAA Tournament game.
Zeller, a Stow native, never reached the tournament in her four years playing at the University of Toledo, but a drive to Moscow did the trick - Moscow, Idaho, that is.
Zeller is in her second season as an assistant coach for the women's basketball team at the University of Idaho and earlier this month, the Vandals claimed their first-ever Western Athletic Conference championship and with it, the league's automatic NCAA berth. The Vandals won the WAC title with a 67-64 triumph over Seattle University.
It is the program's first NCAA appearance since 1985 and it will also be the first NCAA Tournament game Zeller has ever witnessed in person.
"It is the first time and I feel extremely fortunate in my second year here, I can't ask for a better opportunity," Zeller said. "When I was at Stow, I'm not sure I could have imagined this."
The opportunity comes with a bit of a caveat - that would be the Vandals' first-round opponent, one of the most accomplished programs in Division I women's basketball, the Connecticut Huskies. Zeller, head coach Jon Newlee and the rest of the Vandals will face the Huskies in Storrs, Conn. on Saturday and the challenge in front of them is immense.
UConn is currently ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press poll and boasts a 29-4 record. They are coached by Geno Auriemma, with seven national championships in his 28 seasons helming the program.
"I was expecting a Stanford maybe, but not expecting UConn," Zeller recalled. "We knew with our RPI and record, we would probably be a 16 seed. When UConn popped up, everyone started cheering though. It will be great experience for all of our players and our staff. The girls are extremely motivated and at the same time, they don't feel an extreme amount of pressure, not as much as in the WAC tournament. They are mostly saying, 'This is awesome, we get to play against the best players in the nation.' "
Her time in Idaho has also been a great experience, Zeller said, even though living in an even more rural setting than Ohio was a change at first. She recalled making the drive west with her father and getting out into the "middle of nowhere," wondering what she had gotten herself into.
"It's not like Ohio, where you have city after city, you get out here and there's really nothing," Zeller noted.
Her move to Idaho came after spending a year as a graduate assistant at Toledo under new head coach Tricia Cullop. Cullop followed Mark Ehlen, who left the program for another job but stayed in touch with Zeller and helped her land the opportunity at Toledo. After graduating from UT in 2008, Zeller spoke to Cullop and was offered the GA position because she wanted to stay involved with basketball and get into coaching.
Both Cullop and Ehlen served as references for her application for the opening at Idaho and she has spent her first two seasons working with the team's guards and coordinating the team's video efforts.
The result has been a young team that has matured quickly over the course of the season and wound up playing its best basketball at the best possible time.
"We are a young team and the players have worked hard. We had a much better season this year than last year," Zeller added.
She hopes to continue her progress in the coaching ranks and become a Division I head coach some day. Reaching that point can take years, plenty of different stops along the way and a lot of moves to new places. Still, Zeller is confident that she is moving in the right direction.
"The head coach here is great and he's teaching me a lot. I've grown a lot," she said. "When I was done playing, I knew I wanted to stay involved with the game and be a coach. To this day, I find it remarkable, I feel blessed and I couldn't have gotten a better job. I definitely want to become a head coach, but I still have a lot to learn."
Ironically enough, living in Idaho has also provided a unique weather benefit: less snow.
"From what my family has told me back home, we've actually had less snow out here," Zeller said with a laugh.