PULLMAN – Thank goodness for Kamie Ethridge’s dogs.
After a recent Saturday practice, Sky and Harley ran amok through the Washington State women’s basketball offices until Ethridge guided them into a room.
“I am so sorry,” she said in a soft Texas accent to a pair of recruits and their families.
There was no apology necessary, but Ethridge probably knew that already – the girls loved the dogs.
“They really are great for recruits and also for stress-relief,” Ethridge said.
On this day, Sky and Harley did double duty.
A few minutes earlier, Ethridge was presiding over practice. As the dogs sat quietly on the sideline, assistants barked instructions and Ethridge interrupted with her whistle and asked pointed questions of one player after another.
The Cougars have a lot of work to do.
The WSU women’s program has posted just one winning season in the last 22 years and hasn’t enjoyed a winning conference record since 1992.
On the heels of a 10-20 season (3-14 in the Pac-12), June Daugherty was fired and Ethridge brought to Pullman last spring for an interview with athletic director Pat Chun.
“When I went on campus for the interview, I got shown the facilities and a little bit of Pullman the night before the interview and I called back and said ‘I’m not sure this is a good situation,’ just knowing what we would have to recruit against,” Ethridge recalled.
“As a coach … (when your boss) tells you they are going to give you time and they’re going to give you every resource you need, you want to grab that boss and say I want to work for you. Pat Chun did that for me.”
Chun also gave her a six-year contract at $400,000 per year, but that seemed secondary on a sunny autumn afternoon in the Palouse.
Her enthusiasm was redoubled after practice. It was ESPN GameDay in Pullman, with thousands of football fans and their cars filling the town before the game.
“Just look at this place,” Ethridge said as she looked out a window. “It’s very exciting.”
So is the future with the 54-year-old Ethridge at the helm. Before turning Northern Colorado into a conference champ, she did the same as an assistant at Vanderbilt and Kansas State.
Her pedigree as a player is unmatched: a national title at Texas in 1986, an Olympic gold medal two years later. In 2002, the 5-foot-5 former point guard was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
If those credentials make her job easier in Pullman, that’s just fine.
“They’re ballers,” Ethridge said of the WSU players. “It was instant credibility and respect when we walked in the door.”
Last spring, Ethridge was on her way to Pullman for her introductory press conference when she received an email from all seven returning WSU players.
“It said in part: Coach, when you close things, new things open up … new opportunities, new adventures and new relationships.”
“It (the email) hit me hard,” Ethridge said. “Out of the mouths of babes. I’m thrilled I’m (their) next coach and I’m excited to go forward.”
So are the players.
“I’m excited about the new staff – they’re amazing,” point guard Chanelle Molina said. “The system is more free-flowing and allows us to just be basketball players.”
Ethridge and her staff have a solid foundation. Molina, a junior, is the first five-star recruit in school history. Junior forward Borislava Hristova is a prolific scorer (17.8 points per game last year), senior guard Alexys Swedlund led WSU to the WNIT semifinals two years ago, and 6-foot-4 post Maria Kostourkova looks to dominate inside.
The work begins next week, when Utah State comes to Pullman on Election Night. The Cougars have six home games in the nonconference season and a game at Gonzaga on Dec. 9.
The Pac-12 schedule (WSU is picked to finish 11th) opens with a daunting trio of road games against Washington (a Final Four participant three years ago) and the Oregon schools, both of whom made the Elite Eight last season after decades of mediocrity.
Asked what to expect in her first year, Ethridge barely lingered over the question.
“Probably some black eyes and bruises,” she said. “I get it when everybody says it takes four years to really see the fruits.”
But if they’re seeing those fruits in Eugene and Corvallis, why not in Pullman?
Yes, there’s work to do. Reviewing last year’s games, Ethridge didn’t like the Cougars’ body language.
“I’ve heard that they didn’t stay together when it got rough, that they didn’t have good huddles,” Ethridge said.
“But these kids love to play – they want to be coaches when they’re finished here,” Ethridge said.
“We’re spending a lot of time on them being great teammates. … if we can build that foundation, we can succeed.”
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