Eighth-year women's basketball coach Jodi Kest has done what no other coach was able to do at The University of Akron, and that is to lead the Zips to the NCAA Tournament.
With last Saturday's 79-68 victory over Ball State in the championship game of the Mid-American Conference Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena, the Zips earned their first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"It's been a great ride," Kest said. "It means everything. It just means all of the hard work everyone's put in, from the administration to the coaching staff, to the players, to the managers, everybody's collectively worked extremely hard to achieve this honor.
"We have a great group of seniors that have been very focused since they got here day one, and after we lost to Central Michigan in the championship game (last year), they've been determined to get back to the championship game and get to 'The Big Dance.' I'm so proud of them. They've worked extremely hard over the last year to achieve that goal."
Before they started worrying about making it to the NCAA Tournament, the Zips had to first learn how to win basketball games. In the 40 years Akron has had a women's basketball program, the Zips had just eight winning seasons prior to 2013-2014, and Kest was a part of two of them.
"Coach Kest probably works harder than anybody I know," said senior guard Hanna Luburgh. "She's in the office at 7 a.m., and she doesn't leave until after dark. She's constantly watching film. We'll be on the airplane, and she'll have the computer out, watching film anytime she can.
"She's a perfectionist and a competitor. She just wants to win and she does everything that it takes to win. She knows basketball. She has a lot of basketball sense and she's a great coach."
Kest led Akron to a 23-9 mark this year. Under her direction, the Zips scored 82.8 points per game, converted 45.3 percent of their field-goal attempts and made 33.7 percent of their three-point tries.
"The key for us has always been for our coaching staff to have stability," Kest said. "We have three coaches that have been with me for about six years. I think that's very important for our young ladies, and it's nice we added Coach (Glenn) Box to the mix. He's brought some different things to the table, and that's a positive.
"At the end of the day, it's about recruits, going out and getting players that believe in what you're trying to do with the program, fit your style and fit your system. We've gone out and gotten some great players. Some were great in high school, and others continued to get better in our program. I'm just really, really happy for everybody right now."
And most of those recruits that have become Zips are from the state of Ohio.
Of the 15 women on Akron's roster, 13 are from Ohio, and several of those are from the Akron area.
"It helped when we tried to recruit locally first and try to keep the best players locally," Kest said. "To be able to recruit players like Taylor Ruper and Kara Murphy and Rachel Tecca, I think that was important.
"Secondly, there were no banners up there except for one, and for us, it was convincing these young ladies that, 'If you came to Akron, you could be the first to do a lot of different things. You could be the first to go to the NCAAs. You could be the first to win a MAC Championship in the tournament. You could be the first to be an Academic All-American.'
"There were a lot of things in recruiting where you could be the first. Sometimes, a lot of players don't want that kind of pressure, that challenge, so you had to go out and get special players that knew the program hadn't been good, but they wanted to be a part of something pretty special."
Now, the Zips have a chance for another first, the first NCAA Tournament victory in school history.
On Saturday, the Zips play the Purdue Boilermakers on their home court. Ranked 17th in the country before a loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Tournament, Purdue enters the NCAA Tournament with a 21-8 overall record and winners of 10 of the its last 13 games.
"To be honest, we were just thrilled to be picked and are one of the 64 teams that are still playing," Kest said. "For our team, it really wasn't a matter of who we played because all year long, it's never been about the opponent. It's always been about us and what we needed to do to win the games.
"We're going to approach it the same, exact way. We have the utmost respect for Purdue. They were playing extremely well. Before losing to Iowa, I think they won their last six games. They have a great coaching staff and will be playing in front of their home crowd. There's probably going to be 10,000 people there. We're going to have to go out and play a great game in order to beat them on their home court. It's going to be an exciting time for us."