Women Leave Winning Trail Whitworth’s Drive To Nationals Rates Top Regional Highlight
Three first-year coaches, a first playoff appearance by one team and a late run at the NCAA Tournament by another helped highlight the regional 1994-95 women’s college basketball season.
Among the six programs in the area, four - Idaho, Eastern Washington, Gonzaga and Whitworth - had new coaches. And with the exception of Julie Holt at Idaho, three of those programs had a coach in her first head coaching position.
In what was probably the most impressive display of leadership this season, Whitworth coach Helen Higgs took the Pirates to the national playoffs for the first time in school history.
Before a season-ending overtime 63-60 loss to Mount Mercy in the NAIA Division II playoffs, Whitworth (19-12) won the Northwest Conference regular-season title and its postseason tournament.
“It was a really positive season,” Higgs, the Northwest Conference coach of the year, said. “We reached the majority of our goals for the season. Looking at where we started and where we ended up, we were nothing but excited about what happened.”
Helping the team to reach many of those goals was Annette Sweeney. The 5-foot-9 senior guard was voted the NCIC’s most valuable player and was a first-team all-league pick. She led the league in scoring at just less than 20 points a game.
Higgs will have to find a way to offset the loss of Sweeney, point guard Kim McFadden and shooting guard Amy Roberts. McFadden set the all-time Whitworth assists record this season, passing Shellie Sarff.
“I need perimeter players,” Higgs said. “After we got back from our loss to Mount Mercy, I’ve been on the phone ever since with recruits trying to see who is still out there.”
Another first-year coach who had to wait to see what was still out there is Eastern Washington’s Heidi VanDerveer.
Before the season, VanDerveer snagged Kelly Bartleson (Shadle Park) and Tracy Ford (University) for 1995-96. They, along with 6-3 center Shae Olson from Medford, Ore., could step in and have an immediate impact for the Eagles.
Those three will join an Eagles squad that posted a record of 12-15 and qualified for the Big Sky Tournament for the first time in five years.
The Montana Grizzlies made EWU’s appearance in the tournament a short one with a 72-45 beating, but the accomplishment of the season wasn’t lost on one game.
“We’re still excited about this year,” VanDerveer said. “I’m already excited about next year.”
EWU loses Lori Napier, Keri Schwenke, Lisa Graber and Kathy Laky, but returns Nicole King, who used a medical redshirt after sustaining a knee injury after five games. She will be joined by Tina Smith and Resa Watterson.
While Higgs and VanDerveer posted successful debuts, the Gonzaga Bulldogs failed to live up to their potential under new coach Kellee Knowles.
What did Knowles learn in her first season as a head coach?
“I think the bottom line is that everybody you have in the program has to be a believer in what you want to do, and everybody has to be willing to commit to that,” she said. “The biggest thing is getting your team to gel as a unit. I’m not sure any of that actually happened until our last game.”
The final game’s script ended up being like 16 others during the season. Portland beat the Bulldogs 79-73 in the first round of the West Coast Conference Tournament. GU finished the season 9-17.
“Next year, I need to find a way to get them to consistently play the way they did in that game,” Knowles said.
But next year Knowles won’t have Ivy Safranski, Sarah Christensen, Heidi Phillips and Kelli Howell to help out.
The most unfortunate part of the season for Gonzaga was that such a talented and hardworking team had to endure such a season.
Still, there were some individual accomplishments that didn’t go unnoticed.
Safranski finished her career with 1,702 points to become the second-leading scorer in GU history and the fifth-leading scorer in WCC history.
Christensen finished her career with 1,230 points to become the sixth all-time leading scorer in Bulldogs history.
While the Bulldogs fell on hard times, the fortunes of Washington State (16-11) did an aboutface.
After three seasons of career-ending injuries to key players, coach Harold Rhodes finally had a team that was able to walk off the floor at the end of the season under its own power.
And while the team stayed healthy for the most part, it had a tough time finding consistency.
WSU was 11-10 before going 5-1 to finish the season with the hope of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. While that aspiration didn’t materialize, Rhodes has some good players to work with next season.
Seniors Jenni Ruff and Kelli Kronberger will provide the leadership, and sophomore Juli Wight should have a bigger role in the Cougars offense.
WSU loses the inspirational Susie Jarosch and Kireen Ellis. If the Pac-10 presented an award for mental and physical toughness, Jarosch would win the award hands down.
Just to the east of Pullman at the University of Idaho, the Vandals’ (5-21) Juli Holt injected some enthusiasm were it had been absent.
Although Holt loses all-everything center Mindy Rice, returning will be Kerri Wykes, Ari Skorpik, and Kelli Johnson.
And for the Community Colleges of Spokane, it was just another season at the office. The Sasquatch (20-6) grabbed a second straight NWAACC Eastern Division title.
Head coach Bruce Johnson was named Coach of the Year for the second straight season.
“We accomplished what I thought we were capable of,” he said.
And that probably won’t change next year, either. Key returners for CCS will be Brandy Hurlbert, Kelly Gaines and Missy Davies.