It would be safe to say that Kori Hoff Stephenson has had a pretty memorable past few months.
First, she was inducted into the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology Sports Hall of Fame last September, and just over a week ago she coached her Mesa Community College (Phoenix, Ariz.) women’s basketball team to a national title in Overland Park, Kan.
“Words can’t describe it,” said Stephenson after her team defeated Highland, Kan., 82-72 in overtime for the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II title. “I know it sounds silly, but I still dream about the game and I wake up and it’s not a dream. It’s weird to wake up knowing that it really did happen.”
Stephenson, who played at Mines as Kori Hoff from 1994-1998, stands as the Lady Hardrockers' third all-time leading scorer, as well as fourth all-time in rebounding and steals, leading the program to four South Dakota Intercollegiate Conference titles and a NAIA Final Four appearance in 1998. She was a NAIA first-team All-American.
She credits not only her days at Mines, but former head coach Barb Felderman and longtime assistant Lori Coble for her success. In fact, Felderman had a bit to do with her team this season, as she spent a week in Phoenix in early February helping coach the squad.
“Coach (Felderman) obviously had some time off and I said, ‘When are you going to come down?'” She made a trip out of it,” Stephenson said. “She came down for a week and I turned my team over to her. She got after them on the defensive end and brought some attention to detail, the little things that she always preaches, that I grew up hearing her say. She was a new voice, a better voice and an experienced voice. Coach still has it.”
The national title was a bit of sweet redemption for Stephenson and the Mesa program, as the Lady Thunderbirds came close last season, falling to Louisburg (N.C.) in the national title game. That experience also played a big part in this season’s success as well.
Stephenson said her girls focused on the process this year and not the outcome, which eliminated a lot of pressure throughout the season.
“We were fortunate to beat one of our rivals in the region championship to get into the tournament,” she said. “The kids stuck to the championship traits that we coach them on year-in and year-out, focusing on having passion, composure and confidence and executing the game-plan. The pressure wasn’t there; we just stuck to our routine.”
Stephenson has been the Lady Thunderbirds head coach for the past eight years and has compiled an impressive resume with a 179-81 overall record, including 55-12 in the past two seasons. She has guided Mesa to seven straight 20-plus win seasons.
Stephenson has spent her entire coaching career at Mesa, serving as an assistant coach the previous seven seasons, including under former Black Hills State head coach Robin Schamber. It was Felderman and Schamber who got her in the coaching profession.
“They found the opportunity for me here 15 years ago at Mesa,” she said. “I ended up coaching with Robin for three years as an assistant. It’s all because of Coach Felderman and Coach Schamber finding me a place to go.”
Stephenson earned an Interdisciplinary Sciences degree from Mines in 1998. She laughed when she said she was one of the few Mines graduates who came to the school to play sports.
“I didn’t graduate as an engineer, I came there to play basketball,” she said. “I was lucky enough to get a degree from such an awesome college. Basketball is about the only thing I know.”
Stephenson and her husband, Brian, a highly successful high school baseball coach in the Phoenix area, have two sons. She said that she has enjoyed her career at Mesa, a place she now calls home.
Along with her family there, Stephenson said junior college basketball is different in “The Valley.” She said there’s not a lot of opportunity for a student athlete to move on and play unless they go to a Pac 12 or Big Sky school.
“There is quality junior college basketball down here,” she said. “Being a coach, you are not recruiting all over the country. Here, you can recruit in the city of Phoenix. You are all over the Valley, but you’re still coming home to your bed. It really is a good coaching job.”
At the same time, Stephenson said coaching on the junior college level can be different because the coaches only have the athletes for two years.
“I like to say that coaching in junior college, you need a special kid,” Stephenson said. “We have two years with the kid, but they only have one year with the same team. We tell them that it takes a special kind of person to understand that they have to come in and perform right now. We have to build this chemistry and produce fast. It’s pretty fast-paced.”
Stephenson is also a proud Mines alum and is excited about the school’s move to Division II. She said she has followed the program throughout the years.
“It’s neat for the college and it is neat for the athletic program,” Stephenson said of the Division II move. “I always pay attention on the web sites and Coach Ryan (Larsen), he called me. There’s always been a relationship with recruiting, and if I ever get a science kid, an engineer, I do my best … I’ve sent a couple up there. I owe South Dakota School of Mines a lot.”