Washington State wunderkind Charlisse Leger-Walker posed a question that would have made Kamie Ethridge toss her clipboard if the Cougars’ fiery coach was within earshot.
Leger-Walker, the high-scoring Pac-12 Freshman of Year, couldn’t make the distinction between the state of Texas’ two rival universities, Texas and Texas A&M.
“Which one is the Longhorns?” asked Leger-Walker (18.9 points per game) when recently asked about the laundry list of high-major schools who wanted the crafty guard’s services.
The same Texas Longhorns that retired the jersey of Ethridge, a women’s basketball Legend in the Lone Star State who won a national championship in 1986 and went to play in the Olympics.
Texas. Michigan. Arizona. Washington State. None of it really mattered to the New Zealand native, who was focused primarily on three things when picking a foreign college destination: Power 5 conference, trust and the opportunity to play with her fifth-year senior sister, Krystal Leger-Walker.
Choosing the Cougars – a decision that likely made recruiters’ mouths hit the floor – has worked out nicely, though, and quickly helped change the culture of a program typically near the bottom of what’s often deemed the nation’s deepest, most talented conference.
For the first time in 30 years, Washington State may see its name on an NCAA Tournament bracket.
The Cougars (12-11) await their postseason fate today in the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, where several prognosticators believe the Pullman school will earn an at-large berth.
ESPN’s Women’s Bracketology currently predicts Washington State as a No. 10 seed pitted against, coincidentally, No. 7 seed Texas in the first round.
In a season that included wins over then-No. 5 UCLA – the first win over the Bruins in program history – then-No. 8 Arizona and then-No. 21 Oregon State, one of the country’s top freshmen led the charge with a complementary supporting cast.
Krystal Leger-Walker, who followed Ethridge from Northern Colorado to Washington State two seasons ago, understands the gravity of the situation and that the addition of her younger sister ultimately spearheaded the recent charge.
Charlisse’s indifference to big-school glitz has the Cougars in a rare position.
“Just a lot of joy, really. We could have a chance to make a big moment in history for WSU,” Krystal said about the potential of qualifying for an NCAA Tournament. “I’m excited about where the program is going and the potential people can see in us now.”
Washington State is confident it will hear its name called on Monday, but not 100% certain.
For Ethridge and ace recruiter and associate head coach Laurie Koehn, this uncontrollable situation evokes memories of the recruitment of Leger-Walker who, Koehn said, “tortured us a little bit.”
Because Krystal Leger-Walker had an additional year of eligibility after sitting out due to transfer rules at Northern Colorado, it opened up the prospect of playing with Charlisse, the youngest player ever to don a New Zealand national team uniform.
In New Zealand basketball circles, Charlisse, the daughter of former New Zealand star Leanne Walker, is a folk hero of sorts.
“She is like the LeBron of New Zealand,” said Koehn, who made multiple recruiting trips to New Zealand.
Koehn thought she had herself an under-the-radar gem in Charlisse and had gained a trust and familiarity with the Leger-Walker family that started with Krystal.
Koehn, who also followed Ethridge to Pullman after helping make Northern Colorado a Big Sky Conference power, would also wake up at 3 a.m. to watch Charlisse play on her club team on a streaming service while at her Pullman desk.
It wasn’t long before other high-major schools from America began to notice the savvy and versatility. some of the more tradition-rich women’s basketball programs in the country began extending scholarship offers.
But Washington State had what those schools didn’t: trust and rapport.
“In New Zealand, and with that family, trust and loyalty are a big deal,” Koehn said.
Still, the coaches believed she was destined for a bigger school.
But in January 2020, after the Cougars played USC in Los Angeles, the sure-handed, sharpshooting teenager said she needed to talk to WSU’s staff via Zoom call.
They expected the worst.
“I’d like to thank your interest in me, the time you spent and all the letters,” Charlisse told the coaches without making eye contact.
“When she said that, I thought she was rejecting us,” Koehn said. But Charlisse continued to speak.
“And I’m sorry to announce that … you’ll be dealing with two Leger-Walker sisters next season,” she followed with a smirk.
“Our entire hotel could probably hear us scream,” Koehn said. “And that shows you what kind of prankster she is.”
The Leger-Walker sisters vividly remember the days their high school program in New Zealand, St. Peter’s, would get beat by double-digit margins nearly every game.
But St. Peter’s, where Leanne is the head coach, was winning national championships by the time Charlisse was an upperclassman.
Charlisse wants to see the same build-from-the-ground-up process in Pullman.
“Just seeing that program change was a lot like here, and that was a big reason I came here,” she said. “Help a team create change.”
If Washington State earns a rare NCAA Tournament berth, it would likely help springboard the Cougars in that direction.
“She is the type of player that can change a program,” Koehn said. “And when things start to open back up, I can’t wait for Pullman to see what kind of person she is, too. She wants to see others succeed.”
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