Christy Martin has made a career of jolting life into moribund women’s basketball programs.
The Ferris graduate cut her teeth in the Northwest Athletic Conference, turning Blue Mountain and Tacoma community colleges into winners before leveraging those successes to a 2017 hire at NCAA Division II Saint Martin’s.
She’s beginning to change the complexion of the Lacey, Washington, team as well, helping the Saints record a rare winning campaign this past season.
Martin, who turned 40 last month, has found ways to thrive at tradition-thin schools with fewer resources than its their conference peers, applying many of the principles she learned in hoops-rich Spokane.
“The Greater Spokane League is one of the best leagues on the West Coast,” Martin said. “And a big reason for that is the coaching. A lot of the coaches had been in that league for a long time. There’s consistency.”
Martin, who admits to skipping classes in the 1990s to read then-North Carolina men’s coach Dean Smith’s books in the Ferris library, actively sought out lessons from some of her hometown’s best.
The former Walla Walla Community College guard began as an assistant at Ferris in 2001-02 under Art Rojas, when the Saxons placed third at the State 4A tournament. She was at state power Central Valley the following season, an apprenticeship under Dale Poffenroth.
When Martin was named the head coach at Liberty in 2004 – the Lancers won two games the previous season – she was equipped with a hardwood education that ultimately helped the Spangle program to a 60-22 record in three years, including a berth in the State B tournament.
Liberty’s lopsided summer AAU tournament loss to an elite junior high program – Spokane’s Northwest Blazers – provided a networking opportunity with one of her biggest mentors.
Steve Klees, longtime Blazers coach and program director who has helped develop dozens of the area’s best prospects into Division I players, was walking to his car after the blowout when a 20-something Martin tracked him down.
“I was in the parking lot, and she came out of nowhere and introduced herself,” Klees said. “You just knew that she had a passion for the game and wanted to learn.”
The name of Martin’s dog – Summitt, after the late, legendary Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt – best illustrates her fervor.
After one season (2007-08) as an assistant at Walla Walla CC under 450-plus win coach Bobbi Hazeltine, Martin was given the keys to her first college program 39 miles down the road at Blue Mountain, where she made the daily commute for six years.
Blue Mountain – based in Pendleton, Oregon, and a stone’s throw from a state prison – was a Northwest Athletic Conference East Region doormat without a postseason berth in its history when Martin took over in 2008.
She went a combined 40-16 in her final two seasons with the Timberwolves, including two NWAC Tournament berths and a third-place tournament trophy in 2014, sending multiple players to the NCAA Division I level.
Martin faced a similar challenge when she took over a forlorn Tacoma Community College program in late 2014, inheriting a roster with six players. Two seasons later, the Titans had their first 20-win campaign in 15 years.
“When you take over a program, you’re like a CEO who wants to rebrand,” Martin said. “You have a motto, a covenant. You start with the little things like changing the uniforms, the office, the locker rooms and the social media campaigns.”
Now she’s navigating a four-year program in the often deep, talent-loaded Great Northwest Athletic Conference, which features Alaska Anchorage, ranked No. 4 in the final Division II poll – a much different animal than the two-year, partial-scholarship NWAC.
The Saints went 14-13 this past season, their third winning campaign in 12 years, with a 9-11 GNAC mark. Nothing incredible, Martin said, but a step in the right direction.
Saint Martin’s atoned for a 46-point loss in January at Western Washington when it beat the Vikings 71-63 WWU a month later in Lacey, a win that best conveyed the Saints’ progress.
“She’s a tireless worker and recruiter who has taken terrible teams and turned them all around,” Klees said. “It’s admirable to go somewhere that’s not good, and you turn it around, every time.”
GSL products have helped.
All-GNAC guard Claire Dingus (University), and forwards Emily Nelson and Megan Nilsson (both Mt. Spokane) were on last season’s Saint Martin’s team. Martin also convinced Spokane-area talent to play at Blue Mountain.
“Recruiting the Spokane area is a no-brainer,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of talent.”
Dingus, GNAC Freshman of the Year in 2019, has been the linchpin of the Saints’ turnaround.
Martin employs an up-tempo, high-pressure system that encourages field-goal attempts early in the shot clock, among the several reasons Dingus has enjoyed her time in Lacey.
“It’s super fun playing for (Martin) and you’re always learning something,” Dingus said. “She also puts a lot of emphasis on team building. We did team retreats and now, with the quarantine, we’re doing Zoom meetings.
“She can get intense as a coach, but is super helpful when we need it.”
The daughter of retired Spokane Fire Department 14 Lieutenant Jeff Martin grew up on the South Hill, envisioning herself coaching at the Division I level.
It’s a still a goal, but she’s also learned to appreciate where her feet are planted.
Klees believes Martin is qualified to make the next step. She’s focused on creating something special at Saint Martin’s, which will return seven experienced players from last season’s roster, adding a recruiting class that includes junior college All-American Ta’Keria Legette.
“I can see myself being here for a long time,” said Martin, an Eastern Washington graduate. “The staff and administration are unbelievable.”
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