Hayes Zinn reflects on career, ’99 title run, HOFs


PORTSMOUTH — When a person talks to 1999 National Champion, 2004 Vinton County Athletic Hall of Famer, 2005 Shawnee State Athletic Hall of Famer and 2023 Ohio Basketball Hall of Famer Erica Hayes Zinn, the first thing that stands out right away is the talented individual’s charisma, enthusiasm and love for life.

It’s those very qualities that make Hayes Zinn an optimist — and, as a result, the most accomplished individual athlete in the history of the Shawnee State Athletic Department.

A three-time hall of fame inductee as an individual and a two-time hall of fame inductee as part of the 1999 NAIA Division II National Championship-winning Shawnee State women’s basketball program (2009 at Shawnee State and 2010 by the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame), Hayes Zinn has certainly enjoyed a distinguished basketball career, to say the least.

Her induction into the 2023 Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame as an individual is simply the cherry on top to a legacy that has her among just one of two individual Shawnee State basketball figures — the other being her coach Robin Hagen-Smith — as Ohio Basketball HOF inductees as individuals along their paths.

“It’s such an honor,” Hayes Zinn said. “Being inducted as an individual was an amazing experience. You’re surrounded with all of these great players, coaches, and teams. To be part of a team that was voted in, and then go in as an individual, was quite a humbling experience and was such an honor to be recognized.”

Her legendary coach — one who won a total of 637 basketball games at the NAIA level and 713 total at the collegiate level — was simply thrilled to see Hayes Zinn honored in the capacity that she so well deserved.

“It was very special to see her be honored in that manner, and for her parents, two daughters, and husband to be there,” Hagen-Smith said. “Her family has always been supportive, and they are wonderful people. Beyond simply seeing their joy, it was nice seeing the support that was represented from Shawnee State University. It was an incredible evening to be a part of, and it was wonderful to catch up with her and her family.”

A part of an especially talent rich Southern Ohio area in the early to mid-90s where Hayes and former Ohio State alum, Olympian, and National Basketball Hall of Famer Katie Smith, among others, were blazing their way to stardom, and changing the game of girls basketball — and later women’s basketball — in the process, Hayes’ length and overall feel for the game had the talented product destined for individual stardom.

However, like many who begin on their sports journeys, Hayes Zinn’s road to stardom wasn’t always easy.

During her high school basketball career at Vinton County, Hayes Zinn didn’t have the same coach for consecutive seasons in any of her four years on the varsity level from 1991 to 1995.

“When I was in school, I had a little bit of a challenge,” Zinn said. “We had four different coaches in the four years that I played here, which was in the early-to-mid 90s. Basketball was different back then than it is now.”

However, Hayes Zinn found an early blessing following her freshman year — when the well-known Ron Conner, known by many as ‘Tuck,’ asked Hayes Zinn if she would be interested in joining his Loga-based AAU team.

Knowing Conner’s credentials, knowledge of the game, connections and ability to relate to players, the decision to play for Conner — who has coached former Shawnee State women’s basketball and volleyball talent Abbie Kallner, her younger sister Ellie, and former Morehead State University standout Ellie Jo Johnson within the past decade among others — was an easy yes for Hayes Zinn.

And it was that experience that not only helped Hayes Zinn get better at the game that she loved most – — but develop an unmistakable passion within, as well.

“Tuck came in my freshman year, and asked me to join his AAU team,” Hayes Zinn said. “Being able to have that experience and being able to have my eyes opened on how much talent is out there was the start and the turning point of my basketball career. Even though I wasn’t very good at that point in time, practicing with some of these girls made me better. It really opened my eyes to how hard you had to work in order to be the best that you can be. I am so thankful that he was able to recognize something in me at that point in time. He started lighting that fire in me to be the best that I could be.”

From that point on, it was full speed ahead for Hayes Zinn.

In her final three seasons at Vinton County, the forward proceeded to rewrite the school’s record books — becoming a three-time Tri-Valley Conference and all-Southeast District selection while being named as the TVC’s Player of the Year and an all-Ohio selection to boot in each of her final two seasons.

While accomplishing these feats, Hayes Zinn set Vinton County’s career scoring record inside the girls basketball program — amassing 1,342 points for her career, a mark that stood until 2021 — and, in doing so, helped lead Vinton County to a district final appearance as a senior, grasping her first major taste of team-wide success as a unit in the process after battling to help the Lady Vikings achieve greater heights as a program.

Ultimately, Vinton County didn’t win the district title as the Lady Vikings fell to Gallia Academy, who had future teammate and fellow national champion, as well as future Shawnee State Hall of Famer Brandi Munn at that juncture in Hayes-Zinn’s senior season in 1994-95 — but Hayes Zinn did inspire and help begin a tradition of strong girls basketball that still stands today in the Lady Vikings’ program.

Beyond her basketball successes, Hayes Zinn also stood out in track, setting Vinton County’s school record in the long jump — and earning aAll-Ohio honors in that event to become the first female athlete in school history to earn all-Ohio accolades across two different sports.

“Coming back to Vinton County, we didn’t have the greatest record my first three years, but my senior year, we made it to the district championship game, which was huge,” Zinn said. “I always joke my senior year, we played in our home gym, and they actually pulled out both sides of the bleachers, because we were winning, and people were getting excited about coming to watch girls basketball, so I always laugh about that, how funny it is and how excited people were to watch us play.”

Hayes Zinn’s success didn’t go unnoticed, either — as a pair of coaching gurus just over an hour and 15 minutes southwest were already on notice as to her exploits.

While Hayes Zinn first recalls being seen by Hagen-Smith and Gregg Smith at a women’s basketball team camp at Shawnee State, Hagen-Smith actually saw Hayes Zinn play with Vinton County in a showcase that was held at Minford High School.

From there, Shawnee State certainly took all the right steps in the process.

First, the Smiths were the first school to offer Hayes Zinn a basketball scholarship.

Then, Robin and Gregg sent an all-out blitz via the Golden Bears — who heavily swayed Hayes Zinn with their persistence and care into what Hayes Zinn had accomplished, and was accomplishing, at Vinton County.

“I started to get to know them through the recruiting process, and of course, you can’t talk about Shawnee State women’s basketball without talking about the Golden Bears,” Zinn said. “As soon as the Golden Bears knew that they were recruiting me, I started to get newspaper clippings in the mail. They would write me notes.”

Hayes Zinn’s thoughts?

“I told Coach, ‘You know how to recruit,’” Hayes Zinn said to Hagen-Smith. “Once you had the Golden Bears behind you and helping out, you couldn’t tell them no.”

With Hayes Zinn feeling like a high priority recruit, and Shawnee State slam dunking the personable feel, all that was left for the six-footer to do was to visit the Shawnee State campus.

The Smiths, like they had done throughout the recruiting process with Hayes Zinn, knocked it out of the park — between the overall feel of the campus as well as the quick and rising success of the women’s basketball program, which was coming off of its first NAIA Fab Four appearance during the 1994-95 season behind Mid-Ohio Conference Player of the Year and NAIA All-American Jenni Wessel, a native of nearby Waverly who was a six-foot forward as Hayes was.

“When I went for a visit, I fell in love with the campus,” Zinn said. “I loved everything about what Coach and Gregg were building there, the winning program that they had in place there. Right before I got there, they had went to the NAIA Fab Four, so that was super exciting as a new recruit coming in, seeing that they are building and winning. It doesn’t get any better than them – those two people. I can’t say enough about them as coaches and as people. They just are amazing, and I am so thankful that I made the decision to go there. You had the Golden Bears, who were our grandparents there, taking care of us, and Coach and Gregg, who are just wonderful people, and they brought some great people around me. It was perfect. It felt like home there, and I’m obviously thankful that I made that decision.”

Wessel, obviously, was a gem of a player herself as the best player on what was Shawnee State’s most successful team in school history to that point in time — but between Hayes, the fantastic playcalling of the Smiths and the success that was to follow, the Shawnee State women’s basketball program truly developed a winning tradition during this timespan.

Over Hayes’ first three seasons of competition, Shawnee State went an amazing 85-11 — and won three consecutive Mid-Ohio Conference Tournament Championships from the 1995-96 to 1997-98 seasons, advancing all the way to the NAIA National Quarterfinals in 1996 with back-to-back NAIA Sweet 16 appearances in both 1997 and 1998.

“We had an amazing team my freshman year that was just plagued with injuries, but we still had a great season,” Zinn said. “That year and every year thereafter, we were right there. We just couldn’t get past that Sweet 16 matchup, and that does take a lot when you’re trying to make a tournament run. We just had such a bond. Every team that I played with every year, and every teammate that I had, it was such a special bond with every single one of them.”

Behind the leadership of players like Hayes Zinn as well as fellow senior teammates Munn and Carrie Brisker-Purcell, as well as simple fate, the 1998-1999 Shawnee State women’s basketball team proved to have the pieces in place that would allow for a breakthrough.

Hayes Zinn, in particular, was, to put it simply, unreal during her senior season — averaging 24.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per contest while shooting an incredible 67.7-percent from the field.

She helped Shawnee State win each of its first 14 games, and help the Bears go 26-1 to start the season.

“Erica was one of the favorites of the fans,” Hagen-Smith said. “She was very classy, both inside and outside of the sports realm. She always let her play do the talking. She had a lot of talent, but she played both ends of the court. She was really as good defensively as she was offensively. She was so well respected by her teammates, coaches, opposing coaches and officials. She made her teammates better, and above all else, she remained humble.”

As a result, SSU found itself in the American Mideast Conference’s Championship Game in the first season in a new conference home.

With an opportunity to claim four conference tournament titles in four seasons, the Bears were set to face Urbana – an opponent that Shawnee State beat by 10, 86-76, in Waller Gymnasium on Jan. 5, 1999, then by 16, 80-64, on Jan. 26 of the same calendar year at Urbana — in the AMC title bout.

It was expected to be an SSU coronation.

But it wasn’t.

Urbana came into Waller Gymnasium, and proceeded to hold Shawnee State to its lowest scoring output of the season to that point in a 73-65 setback.

For Hayes Zinn, the loss was devastating.

“The one that sticks out to me the most was when we lost to Urbana on our home floor (in the AMC Tournament Championship Game),” Zinn said. “That, other than winning the national championship, sticks out. That was a huge hit for me my senior year. We weren’t expecting that to happen.”

Championship teams, however, fail to fold up camp when times get tough.

And facing, without question, its largest adversity, in terms of an overall game result during the season, during the 1998-99 campaign, Hayes Zinn and company rose above.

“Looking back, I believe that things happen for a reason,” Zinn said. “It gave us the shot in the arm that we needed. We learned, ‘Hey, we have to come out every single game, every single time, ready to play.’ That got us ready for the national tournament and gave us a little extra incentive to make sure that we played our best every time out. That helped us going into the national tournament.”

Using the AMC Championship Game loss as motivation, Shawnee State proceeded to put an overall beatdown on their competition in the NAIA National Tournament, winning three of its five NAIA National Tournament contests by double-digit margins and posting an average winning margin of 14.2 points per game during the tournament — all while playing those five games in a week’s time.

“They were very unselfish,” Hagen-Smith said of the 1999 National Championship group. “But they held each other accountable, too, and that’s all based on the respect that they had for each other. They knew how far they could push each other, even as teammates – and they were able to push each other enough where they were able to produce at the highest level.”

“You’re just exhausted from playing that many games,” Zinn said. “You’re having to prepare, and with Coach and Gregg, I don’t know how much they had to do behind the scenes to get ready for the next game, because there’s not a lot of time to prepare. It’s a challenge, when you make it to that level and try to make a tournament run. First of all, just playing five games in a week is a grind. Then, to add to that, (2024 SSU Hall of Famer) Kelli Smith went down with an ankle injury the first or second game. However, that’s when Becky Holden, as well as the whole team, stepped up.”

Along the way, Shawnee State vanquished an old NAIA National Tournament nemesis in Northwestern (Iowa), whom the Bears beat by a 91-89 count to reach the NAIA National Quarterfinals.

“The biggest game for us during that tournament was our Sweet 16 contest against Northwestern,” Zinn said. “That was huge for us, because we hadn’t ever been able to get past that game, and it was a very competitive game for us. I believe that once we got over that hump, we were ready to roll.”

Then, the Bears ran the table all the way to the NAIA National Championship Game, where on March 16, 1999, Shawnee State defeated NAIA national power Saint Francis (Ind.), 80-65, to clinch the program’s, and the university’s, first NAIA National Championship of any kind.

“We all had the same goals, and that’s what makes both coaches, the team, and our program so special,” Zinn said. “Every single player that we had wanted the same thing, and we played for each other on the court. The bond that I have, still, with this national championship team is unbelievable. We still hang out and we still talk. One person can’t win a championship on their own. We had an amazing team. We had a role, and everybody gave it their all every practice and every game. It was such an amazing experience just to have people like that around you all of the time. They were very special teammates.”

“They were so driven,” Hagen-Smith said. “Yes, they were great basketball players and were committed to each other as teammates, but they knew what they wanted off of the floor as well. They had the mindset of wanting to succeed in everything that they did, including in their academics.”

By the time Hayes Zinn finished her career at Shawnee State, the three-time NAIA All-American and All-AMC talent had added titles of Kodak All-American, NAIA National Championship Tournament Most Valuable Player and NAIA National Player of the Year to her nameplate.

She remains the only player in Shawnee State history to accomplish all of those feats in the same year.

In addition, Hayes was a two-time NAIA Scholar-Athlete and set 11 different program records, including single-season records in points and rebounds, the former of which still stands today.

“There’s so many life lessons that the game teaches a person,” Zinn said. “The resilience, work ethic, accountability and respect that I have, along with the teamwork that comes from being a part of a tightly-knit group, are things that the game has taught me. Those are things that I carry in my life today, and try to teach to my children.”

Hayes, however, has not only taught her children those qualities, but many of those around her, as well.

Ultimately, her sisters, Heather and Kristi, joined Erica in the Vinton County High School Athletics Hall of Fame, with Heather and Kristi combining for five all-TVC and five All-Southeast District selections, and Heather winning the 1998 Tri Valley Conference’s Player of the Year Award in basketball while being named as an all-Ohio honoree three times.

Her daughter, Cameron, then proceeded to enjoy even more success at Vinton County — from a team standpoint than all of them.

Cameron not only broke the school’s rebounding record set by her mother, but helped lead the Lady Vikings to a Division II State Runner-Up finish as a key basketball hand.

An all-Ohio honoree in both basketball and volleyball, Zinn ultimately posted over 2,000 career assists as a volleyball talent — and earned an opportunity to play at NCAA Division II Wheeling as a result.

“It was so exciting to watch Cameron play in the state championship game,” Zinn said. “That was one of the most nail-biting things for me to watch as a parent — seeing my daughter play the game that I love, play it at a high level, and take our community to a state championship game. I’m getting goosebumps talking about it. It was so exciting to watch that, and I’m so grateful for the community. I’m back where I grew up. My husband’s from here. Both sets of our parents are from here. We’re really invested, and love our small town and our community here.”

If it was passion and desire to represent different facets of her life that were bigger than herself that led Hayes Zinn to the NAIA’s holy grail back in 1999, it was the same qualities that led her to the highest of achievements in her post-basketball career.

She, along with Hagen-Smith and several of her closest friends and teammates on that 1999 Shawnee State women’s basketball national championship unit, are the only individuals who have been honored in a hall of fame of some type over at least three different decades.

Her latest honor was the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2023 – where Hayes Zinn is one of just 284 members at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels.

The prestigious club includes the aforementioned names of Hagen-Smith and Katie Smith, former NCAA Division I basketball player and head coach Marlene Stollings, NBA standouts Austin Carr, Mark Price, Brad Daughtery, Oscar Robertson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Jerry Lucas, to name a few, and legendary head coach Bob Knight among many others in what is a who’s-who list of names.

“Going into the Hall of Fame was something that I felt that I almost didn’t deserve, because I had so many wonderful teammates around me that deserve this just as much,” Zinn said. “I couldn’t do what I did without each one of them, so honestly, while I appreciate the recognition, it is about them. I’m only here because of them and all of the coaches and players that I played with through the years. As I reflect back 25 years on the national championship, which is crazy to me, it’s even more special, especially as I think about how close we all came in order to accomplishing that feat together.”

More than 25 years after first accomplishing what was once never done before in Shawnee State history, Hayes Zinn, as part of the most integral piece to a unit that was the first national championship unit, successfully opened a door that has since resulted in the 2021 men’s basketball unit, the 2021 Esports Hearthstone squad and Seth Farmer’s 2019 National Championship-winning effort in the one mile joining them.

As a champion with over a quarter-of-a-century down since winning that very special crown on March 16, 1999, Hayes Zinn says that the hardware, in particular the memories associated with said hardware, only get more special as the years go by.

“It gets more special with time as you get caught up with everything,” Zinn said. “When you win it all, you get so caught up in the moment when it’s happening, and as you get older, you tend to appreciate things a little bit more. I think that as you reflect back, it gets more special. The friendships and the bonds that I had with my teammates, to this day, is just as important as that national championship that we won. That journey all brought us together, and from those times, we have grown. We still keep up with Coach. We were all there when Mamie (Brisker) passed away. We’ve just been through so much together, I think, that the experience of winning a national championship has just grown, because we’ve all experienced that together as well as the different phases of life that have come after we finished playing and started careers or families of our own. The bond is just so strong with all of us.”

Hayes Zinn’s talent not only inspired Shawnee State to a national title in women’s basketball — it helped solidify the game of women’s basketball in people’s hearts and minds throughout Southeastern Ohio and the Tri-State area as a whole.

However, seeing Hayes Zinn not only accomplish the feats that she has both during her playing career and off of the heels of it, but more importantly, be the supportive mother and wife that she has been along with a giver to her home community back in McArthur and Vinton County, in general, has been among the highlights of Hagen-Smith’s life, as it is has been with all of her players who have flourished in their careers, family lives, and personal lives outside of basketball.

“One of the greatest rewards, for me, is seeing what they are all doing after their athletic careers – being involved in their community, giving back, and seeing them flourish,” Hagen-Smith said. “I will always be grateful for the opportunity to coach such a special team. It was a joy and an honor.”

The list of the players involved with the 1998-99 Shawnee State women’s basketball national championship team, along with Hayes Zinn, were chalk-full of local talent from the following areas.

Carrie Brisker Purcell and Mamie Brisker — Minford

Brandi Baker-Damron and Steffani Diesel-Slone — Whitesburg (Ky.) High School (now Letcher County Central)

Cheri Griffith — Greenup County (Ky.)

Erica Hayes Zinn — Vinton County

Becky Holden-Elkins — Fayetteville-Perry

Brandy Humphrey-Lightle — Western

Susie Kline — Rock Hill

Brandi Munn — Gallia Academy

Kelli Smith — Chesapeake

Sarah Ward-Hood — River Valley

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