ERIE, Pa. -- From the minute Barbara Stevens arrived on Bentley's campus in 1986, she knew she had found a home.
Twenty-eight years later, the Massachusetts native is looking to bring a national championship to the Falcons' storied program.
"I think every team that you coach is a special team," Stevens said "This team has become special in their own way because of how they've approached everything this year. First of all, to play in this game is unbelievable, and if we were so lucky to win, I think it would cap off a wonderful career for our seniors. They have put in so much hard work to this point and it's such a unique group that has provided the leadership to get here."
No. 1 Bentley (34-0) and No. 5 West Texas A&M (32-2) will play for their first national championship as the two meet on Friday at 7 p.m. at Erie Insurance Arena.
Stevens is the all-time winningest coach in Division II history with 759 wins during her 28 seasons at Bentley. She has an overall record of 916-246 in 37 seasons.
"I started my coaching career at the Division III level at Clark in Worcester [Mass.] and was there for seven years," Stevens said. "Like every coach, I aspired to coach at the highest level. I was offered a position at Division I Massachusetts in Amherst and was there for three what I like to call forgettable years. It wasn't a good fit for me and it was in a different time, certainly, than big-time athletics is in now. I was called by the athletic director at Bentley during August prior to my fourth year at UMass and he said he had an opening and I should check out the campus. At the time, I didn't think it would be a good career move, but growing up in Massachusetts, I knew that Bentley has always had a very good basketball program. I took a ride out there and the minute I arrived on campus, I knew it was the right fit and the right match."
Stevens has led Bentley to 20 NCAA regional finals throughout her career and took the Falcons to the national championship in 1990. Bentley lost to powerhouse Delta State 77-43 in the title game, but Stevens has a second chance at a national title on Friday.
"She's a great coach and I've absolutely loved playing here for five years now," said Bentley graduate student and starter Courtney Finn. "It would mean the world to us to give her a national championship. She deserves this and we'd love to bring her a title."
West Texas A&M coach Mark Kellogg is in his first year with the Lady Buffs,but is no stranger to the pressure of championship basketball. In 2010 he took Fort Lewis (Colo.) to the national championship game before losing to Emporia State 65-53.
Kellogg is off to a terrific start to his career with a 220-61 record in nine seasons but has some work to do to catch up to Stevens. She was inducted into the women's basketball hall of fame in 2006 and is fifth all-time in wins among women's basketball coaches on all levels.
Kellogg, a Dallas native that earned his graduate degree from West Texas, returned to Canyon,Texas in April of 2013 as the new women's basketball coach. The Lady Buffs went 20-12 the previous season and didn't reach the NCAA tournament. He used his experience and unselfish style of play to make believers out of his team.
"I had never gone through a coaching change in my life," said West Texas senior Casey Land. "There were a lot of different emotions and I had a great relationship and a lot of respect with the previous staff, but we were excited. We might have researched coach Kellogg a little bit before he arrived, but we were ready for a new opportunity. We knew he had a lot of success and even from the beginning he came in and laid down the rules with us and he was real with us."
The results from the Lady Buffs buying in right away have been 30 wins, a conference title, a regional title and a chance to win a national championship.
"The first time I went was with Fort Lewis and it was different because we went through a process of building a team," Kellogg said. "We went to the first round and lost then to the Sweet 16 and eventually to the national championship in my fifth year there. That experience has made this week a little easier and I'm more comfortable with everything beyond basketball. I knew there would be a press conference today and the trophy would be here on the table. That's the kind of stuff you don't know about until you go through this whole process. The challenges are still there and the quality competition is still there. I remember those feelings of winning the first two games and the heartbreak of losing the national championship game."