RENO, Nevada – Not even coach Wendy Schuller knew what to expect this year from the Eastern Washington women’s basketball team.
Except that the Eagles would work their tails off and make her proud.
For a decade-and-a-half, the Eagles have been doing just that for Schuller, who’s on the cusp of a second straight 20-win season going into Wednesday’s night’s quarterfinal game against Sacramento State in the Big Sky Conference tournament.
This year’s 19-11 overall record has been earned the hard way, with only five returning players following the offseason departure of seven athletes. Last year’s 21-12 campaign was quickly forgotten by the media and coaches, who picked the Eagles to finish sixth and ninth, respectively, in the Big Sky.
“That surprised me. I don’t think people thought we were as good as I knew we were,” said Schuller, who promptly rolled up her sleeves and worked to create a special chemistry out of the returnees and newcomers.
“That’s a tribute to our coaches,” said senior Hayley Hodgins, the Eagles’ leading scorer. “They’re all on the same page.”
Along with assistants Jerise Freeman, Bryce Currie and Jodi Page, Schuller led the Eagles to a second-place finish that seemed almost conjured, given the circumstances.
“I don’t think I deserve a ton of credit – that goes to the assistant coaches who had my back and believed in what we do from the get-go and worked hard to develop our players,” Schuller said.
Relying on three key returnees – Hodgins, her sister Delaney Hodgins and junior point guard Tisha Phillips – the coaches melded their talents with the new arrivals.
“Credit the players – they all bought in to what we were trying to do,” Schuller said.
“I was a little worried at first,” said Phillips, who moved up from a reserve role last year. “But once we got going we had a different feel to our game.’
“I just knew we were going to pick up from last year,” Phillips said.
Eastern has come to expect that from the 46-year-old Schuller, who has steadily built the program into a Big Sky contender. The breakthrough came in 2009-10, when Eastern won its first Big Sky regular-season title and hosted the league tournament.
By the time the season was over, Schuller was the conference coach of the year and the Eagles went 19-12 overall and reached a national postseason game, the women’s NIT, for the first time since 1987.
Two years later, Schuller led the team to a third-place finish in the Big Sky Conference, and in 2012-13 she reached the 19-win plateau. Eastern won a school-record 14 Big Sky games that year, finishing third after being picked eighth in the preseason poll – the kind of overachievement that’s become the norm in Cheney.
In the meantime, the Eagles have earned a spot on the prestigious Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Academic Top 25 Honor Roll in all but one of Schuller’s season.
Last year, Schuller and the Eagles finally reached the 20-win plateau after a quarterfinal win over Northern Arizona. Moments after the final buzzer, congratulatory texts filled her cellphone.
They came from the former players “who’ve worked hard to get us to this point,” said Schuller, recalling names from more than a decade ago.
“It’s something that’s been a long time coming,” Schuller said.
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