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Carlson put NIC back on sure footing

Given the job he’s done rebuilding the North Idaho College women’s basketball program, it should come as little surprise that head coach Chris Carlson is an accomplished handyman.

In his spare time, Carlson, whose father was a carpenter, is finishing the basement in his new home.

His renovation of the Cardinals is nearly complete, too. NIC was 6-24, 4-20 in the Scenic West Athletic Conference in Greg Crimp’s final year. The Cardinals enter the Region 18 Tournament with 21-9, 12-6 marks – your basic 15-game turnaround.

“I wasn’t sure we could turn it so fast,” said Carlson, previously an assistant at Eastern Washington University when that program started climbing the Big Sky standings. “Our goal early in the year was to have a winning record. When we went back to Kansas (in early November), we were right there with those ranked teams and I could see we had some fighters and some depth.”

Wins soon followed. After an 8-5 overall record and a 1-2 start in the SWAC, the Cardinals rattled off 13 wins in their final 17 games. Two of those losses were to No. 1 ranked College of Southern Idaho, which is hosting regionals. NIC, seeded third, opens against No. 6 Eastern Utah today at 3. The Cardinals beat CEU three times by an average of 35 points.

If NIC prevails, it would probably meet Salt Lake in the semifinals. NIC beat the Bruins twice two weeks ago and Salt Lake lost one of its top players to a knee injury in the second game.

“It’s been an amazing experience for me,” said NIC sophomore Sheena Hinkle, the only returning player to see court time (sophomore guard Crystal Jones is redshirting). “I wish I was a freshman so I could play with all these girls again.”

Regardless of how the tournament unfolds, Carlson has the program on a solid foundation. Despite getting a late start on recruiting when he was hired last May, Carlson used his contacts throughout the Northwest to bring in a talented class.

Sharp-shooting guard Jeni Boesel, a transfer from the University of Portland, was going to sit out at EWU, but changed her mind when Carlson landed the NIC job. Ahlee Thomas called Carlson looking for a new home after playing at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., last season.

A Seattle-area coach alerted Carlson about forward Sarah Dennehy, who sprained her ankle two weeks ago but is expected to play in the tournament. Dennehy, who averages 13.3 points and eight rebounds, and Boesel, who has connected on 68 3-pointers, are probable All-SWAC selections.

“It’s probably the best decision I could have made,” said Boesel, a perfect fit in NIC’s up-tempo, shoot-the-3-when-open approach. “We like to run and try to wear down the other team. It’s what I’m used to.”

Lindsey Koppen and Jenni Lyman played at Sentinel High in Missoula under former Montana Grizzlies standout Karen Deden, who gave the two a high recommendation to Carlson. Forward Julie Pearson is a Coeur d’Alene High product.

Former Central Valley Bears player Caitlin Courchaine wanted to play after a year away from basketball. Carlson is optimistic that Courchaine, who broke her nose late in the season, will play this week. NIC minority student advisor Darrell Tso helped steer point guard Stephanie Jones to campus from Gamerco, N.M.

“Two weeks before school started I’m sitting in the office with (wife and assistant coach) Carey and the kids and there’s a knock on the door,” Carlson said. “It’s Stephanie with a basketball under her arm.”

Hinkle stuck around because she didn’t want to start over elsewhere.

“A few of the girls from last year realized it wasn’t their thing to play here and decided to go their own way,” Hinkle said. “I love Coeur d’Alene and NIC and with a new coach and new team I figured, ‘What’s there to lose?’ “

“Carlson probably deserves all of the credit,” Boesel said. “He pulled this team together. We’re basically all his recruits. I’ve enjoyed every second playing for him.”

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