By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - The No. 9 seed in a 12-team tournament, few expected Auburn to be cutting down the nets as 1997 SEC women's basketball champions.
"Four games in four days," recalled Beth Younger Purpich. "We were the lowest seed to ever win the SEC Tournament. We had to play the best teams in the country, and we beat them."
On their way to the tournament title in Chattanooga, the '97 Tigers knocked off three top 10 teams, including eventual national champion Tennessee.
"It was crazy," Purpich said. "We beat Georgia, Ole Miss, Tennessee and then Florida for the championship. Tennessee won the NCAA Tournament that year. They also won in '98 and they won in '99. We upset that Tennessee dynasty."
Beth Younger Purpich played on Auburn's 1997 SEC Tournament championship team
Purpich's mother, Melanie Moore Younger, had grown up in Tennessee, playing high school basketball against Pat Summitt, the coach of that Tennessee dynasty.
When Younger attended Auburn University's College of Veterinary Medicine in the early 1970s, she played on Auburn's basketball team when the Tigers competed in their inaugural season in the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
"Once you play for a school and you wear their name on your jersey, I was hooked," said Younger, who had grown up a fan of her home state Volunteers.
Melanie tried to pass along her love for Auburn to her daughter, Beth. At first, that shot was blocked.
"I grew up disliking Auburn because my mom loved it so much," Beth said. "She was such a rabid fan. She should be. She went to vet school there, and she played on the first women's team. For some reason, I was like, 'Auburn's the last place I'm going to go to school.'
"And then I'm playing basketball in high school and I'm recruited pretty much everywhere and Auburn just seemed like the perfect fit for me, so that's when I was like, 'Oh my Lord, I can't believe this is happening. I'm going to Auburn.' Being able to play at the same school that my mom was on the first women's team. That's pretty epic."
Like her mother a quarter-century before, playing basketball on the Plains instilled in Beth a love that's lasted a lifetime.
"It was such a great experience," Beth said. "It was amazing. I still keep up with my teammates, coaches, classmates and friends that I had."
After earning her MBA at Case Western Reserve in Ohio, Beth began a career in sales and marketing, designing handbags on the side.
"I've been doing it for about 10 years," she said. "I was inspired by my family. We have a cattle farm outside of Nashville. I grew up around leather and hide.
"I had creativity in my family. My grandmother would paint, bake ceramics and sculpt. She would design clothes. I got inspired by that. I had an idea for a handbag. It was just an idea and I ran with it, and so now it's become my livelihood."
Nearly five years ago, Beth's Houston-based Elizabeth Purpich Collection grew to the point where it became her full-time occupation.
Handbags from the Elizabeth Purpich Collection
"The passion was always there," she said. "My customers and the general public started accepting it, and really loved the designs.
"As I evolved, I have more designs. We have different retailers now that carry them. We're slowly building the brand. I definitely have more goals in mind. We're doing great, but I have goals for the future."
Beth's mom feels the same pride about her daughter's entrepreneurial accomplishments that she experienced 20 years earlier, watching Beth help Auburn win an SEC tournament title.
"She has worked so diligently to make that happen," Younger said.
Mother and daughter still support the Tigers, attending several SEC events, including last month's women's basketball tournament in Nashville.
If you see them, decked out in orange and blue, you may notice one of Beth's one-of-a-kind leather handbags, or the accessory she wears on her right ring finger.
"She often wears that SEC basketball tournament championship ring that her Auburn team won in 1997," said Melanie. "That has been such a conversation starter."
No matter where her journey takes her, Beth Purpich takes Auburn with her.
"The Auburn family to me is so amazing," Beth said. "I was hiking in Switzerland and I ran into some people and they were like, 'Hey, War Eagle,' and I'm like, 'War Damn Eagle.' It really is a family. I see them everywhere, and I'm looking. I'm looking for fellow Tigers everywhere I go."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer