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John Blanchette: Thirty years between tournaments gives Cougars plenty of time to savor moment

March 15, 2021 Updated Mon., March 15, 2021 at 10 p.m.

Charlisse Leger-Walker (front) reacts to Washington State being selected to play in the NCAA Tournament Monday afternoon at the Rankich Club Room at Martin Stadium.  (Courtesy/WSU athletics)
Charlisse Leger-Walker (front) reacts to Washington State being selected to play in the NCAA Tournament Monday afternoon at the Rankich Club Room at Martin Stadium. (Courtesy/WSU athletics)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Thirty years? The players don’t know from 30 years. Heck, the best player isn’t 20 yet. Thirty is an alien concept, like Blockbuster and personal checks.

And the coach? Well, she’s only been in town for three winters now. That doesn’t make her an overnight sensation – the first two were pretty rough – but you know coaches. It’s all about the day-to-day, not the decades.

In the end, it passed in the blink of an eye anyway.

Monday’s selection show for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament had barely begun when Washington State’s name went up on the bracket for the first time since 1991, and the rejoicing over this new bit of history immediately overwhelmed the ancient.

But the players from ’91 remember their moment.

Sort of.

“I want to say we were at The Bookie,” said Darci Wellsandt. “We may have gone to a room there and heard it. There weren’t any live announcements.”

“Probably a phone call,” said Heather Gores – Heather Norman when she was Wellsandt’s Cougar teammate. “I don’t even know now.”

They just know they made history at their school in cracking the women’s bracket in the tournament’s 10th year. They were proud to be the first – and proud, too, that they’re no longer the only.

The Cougs are off to Austin, Texas, as a No. 9 seed, with a Sunday night date against South Florida. The winner gets No. 1 seed North Carolina State, in all likelihood, in Round 2 – but no matter how long the ride, the WSU coach Kamie Ethridge is convinced it won’t take another 30 years to gas up for another.

“We don’t want to be a one-hit wonder,” she said.

That wasn’t a shot at the past, but more of a line in the sand.

And not necessarily one Ethridge was willing to draw at the beginning of the season, the Cougs picked to finish last in the Pac-12 and the latest in 16 20-loss seasons just in this century.

“Coming here, you know it’s not a great tradition,” she said. “Once you’re here and you know how hard we struggled those first two years, and then you get to know the Pac-12 and how it’s become, you wonder if you got yourself into something you couldn’t get out of. Is there a reason the tradition was like that?”

Ethridge didn’t do a deep dive on that, perhaps understanding that her task was to create and not rewrite.

But a tiptoe through the record books makes you wonder if there were chances to change the story earlier.

The 1991 Cougs had some players. Angie Miller, Camille Thompson and Wellsandt left school as the Nos. 4, 5 and 7 career scorers. Darla Williamson still holds the assists record. Norman was the school’s first real 3-point threat. Kristin Metson led the team in scoring and rebounding. Dawn Allinger played in the 1996 Olympics – in team handball.

Miller, Metson and Allinger graduated, but the ’92 Cougs still got off to a 7-1 start, including wins over Iowa State and Texas A&M – and a competitive loss to Sheryl Swoops and Texas Tech. They opened the Pac-10 with two wins – and lost 13 of the next 15 games.

“With any season, you have to figure out how to step up and play through things like injuries,” Wellsandt said, “and get some breaks. We didn’t get many that year. But we might have been the team that got them the year before.”

The ’95 Cougs went .500 in league and finished sixth; five Pac-10 teams went to the tournament. The ’96 team started 15-5, then lost seven of eight.

“It just shows,” Gores said, “how hard it is just to be able to get there.”

Ethridge, having played the game at the highest level, wasn’t daunted by the history.

“I could have stayed where I was for a long time,” said Ethridge, who took Northern Colorado to the NCAAs. “This wasn’t a comfort move. This was a step into the big leagues to compete against the best.”

And she’s looking for the like-minded to help WSU “become a program that’s name is called every single year on NCAA selection day.

“There’s a reason you go to a Connecticut,” she said. “If you’re going to put a banner up, you’re just going to be one of a whole bunch. And that’s great, and a lot of kids would choose that. But there’s also players that want to leave footprints behind for the others. They can point to a time in our program’s history and say, ‘That’s when it changed – when I was there.’

“There’s something to that kind of character and competitor that’s willing to go out on a limb and take a chance on a program that hasn’t done it. But then we can reap the rewards and be a part of climbing up that mountain and seeing if we can put a stake on the top.”

Of course, there’s always another mountain – like winning an NCAA Tournament game. But now it doesn’t look like Everest.

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