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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

How it all began: Girls basketball took off behind talents like Denise Schlepp, Lisa Oriard and Lori Lollis

By David Oriard For The Spokesman-Review

Their names may be forgotten, or their accomplishments taken for granted, but Greater Spokane League girls basketball owes much of its current success to those who were there in the beginning.

In the first 12-13 years of the league coaches such as Linda Sheridan and players like Denise Schlepp, Lisa Oriard (the author’s sister) and Lori Lollis helped to put in motion the dominant force the GSL has become.

Sheridan, who would become both a state-winning volleyball and basketball coach at Shadle Park, led the Highlanders to the first GSL championship in 1976-77 with Schlepp as her leading scorer. Eleven years later, the Highlanders won back-to-back state championships with two-time state player of the year Lollis leading the way for Sheridan.

Oriard, a three-time first team all-GSL selection, helped lead Gonzaga Prep to sixth place in the 1983 state tournament and the Bullpups made another postseason run in 1984, this time with Schlepp as their first-year head coach.

Schlepp believes the GSL would not be what it is today were it not for the growing pains of her peers.

“It was the drive, the want, the determination of a generation that had never had it before,” she said. “To go from never having to having the opportunities, it paved the way for these girls to have the opportunities they have today.

“If girls of my day had said I’m not interested or had not seen the opportunity and run with it and make it the most important thing in their lives, sports might not have become what it is.”

It wasn’t easy.

Schlepp recalled that Shadle Park offered only one varsity girls sport her sophomore year. That was volleyball. Basketball and softball came in her junior year. Otherwise, there weren’t many opportunities for girls, to the point that she even played on Shadle’s B-squad baseball team as a sophomore.

It wasn’t cool for a girl to enjoy sports, so several of her peers backed away.

“A lot of people weren’t strong enough in person or in character, or didn’t have someone like Linda Sheridan who was so encouraging and made it so inviting to fight the fight that was there early on. You would walk down the hall and be called (homophobic slurs). People would say things because you played sports,” Schlepp said.

“It was hard when you’re that age and you’re trying to figure out anything,” she continued. “Because for the first time you’re in a place where you’re able to become who you want to become and you’re having your peers tear you down.”

By the time Schlepp, who took over for Nick Scarpelli after the 1982-83 season, was coaching Oriard at Gonzaga Prep stereotypes were becoming a thing of the past and girls were more accepted as athletes.

Still, there weren’t many female players to look up to or idolize.

“Our role models were NBA players that I would watch. Well, not role models, but I would watch them and try to pick up moves from them,” Oriard said. “Nick Scarpelli would tell me to watch them, watch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on TV.”

Although she never developed a devastating skyhook, Oriard found numerous successes at the University of Washington where she was a starter on four NCAA Tournament teams and was a two-time team captain. When women’s basketball became a full-fledged Pac-10 sport in 1986-87, the Huskies responded by finishing tied for second that year and winning the conference championship the next. Oriard was named all-conference both times.

Although she said she did not feel like a pioneer of the sport in high school there was such a feeling in college.

“In college we were very successful,” she said. “We had huge crowds every game and kids would hang around and ask for autographs after every game. You would see a lot of the same kids. That was a lot of fun to be a part of that when it was really just starting out.”

Schlepp spoke about Oriard and the progress made in the women’s game during the ’80s.

“Lisa was just so gifted and she stood out so much because of how talented she was. And I think that little girls seeing that kind of talent and then wanting that for themselves and Dad being OK with it. … I think it became more and more OK for girls to be in sports,” Schlepp said. “There were more opportunities and more camps. I think girls sought it out more. If you get more people trying to have a goal like that, to get good at something, you’re likely going to get more good people.”

There were plenty of good players putting the ball in play for the GSL. To name a few, Schlepp led the league in scoring that first year with a 17.9 average in a nine-game season. In ’81-82, Central Valley’s Annette Helling set league records with 301 points and 21.5 ppg. Her point total stood as the record for 10 years, her scoring average for 25 years. Oriard, the 1984 MVP, was the first GSL alum to be named all-league in a major college conference. In 1985, three of the five first-team All-GSL stars – MVP Melissa Barker from Ferris and CV’s Michelle Rodgers and Tina Morrison – went to Hawaii and played in two NCAA Tournaments. Lollis, who won two state championships in basketball and two more in volleyball, played basketball at San Diego State and Washington State.

GSL trophy cases were filling up in the ‘80s. Shadle Park finished second at state in ’81; Prep was sixth in ’83, Ferris third in ’84 and CV third in ’85. The big breakthrough was in ’88 when Shadle Park edged Lewis and Clark by four points in the state championship game. The following year Shadle repeated and LC finished third.

Barker, whose married name is Allen, carries an interesting perspective on the growth of the league, first as a player in the mid-1980s, then as coach at Mt. Spokane 25 years later.

“There were some competitive teams back then and there were some great basketball players, but I have to be honest, over the years, it has just become stronger and stronger,” she said.

“I mean, I think it’s more competitive in recent years than it was back then. Part of that is just the growth of the sport,” she continued. “And club. Nowadays, girls are playing club and they have the opportunity to play for a pretty good portion of the year. Back then, club was like … oh, you go to a couple of tournaments. It has evolved so much and gotten more and more competitive, at the college level, too. There’s just more and more good female basketball players today.”

Call it club, AAU or Junior Olympics, Oriard also spoke about the impact of playing year-round.

“What really helped strengthen the GSL was AAU because AAU was new and we went to nationals at the end of my junior year and senior year,” Oriard recalled of her experience playing for the Spokane Stars directed by Ron Adams and Jack Blair, for which Barker also played. “Ninety percent of the players on those teams were from the GSL. The competition and experience of everyone playing AAU with and against higher-level players strengthened the GSL.

“Now, I mean the kids are playing AAU so young. Every weekend there is a tournament that players are going to. … Ten-year-olds are going to all these tournaments every weekend. AAU is a FAR bigger deal than it was. I think it was just starting out when we were playing.”

While gifted players came and went and the GSL talent pool continued to grow leading up to the 1990s, there was one constant: Shadle Park. In the first 13 seasons through 1989, the Highlanders finished first or second in the GSL 11 times, with five league championships. There were four state trophies, including the back-to-back titles in ’88 and ’89.

The constant at Shadle Park was Linda Sheridan. She coached basketball and volleyball from the beginning and by the time she retired her teams had accumulated more than 800 victories. In addition to the two state titles in basketball, there were five in volleyball, including a stretch of four in the five seasons from 1984 through 1988.

Sheridan, who died from ALS in 2013, left an immeasurable impact on many of her players, Schlepp being one of them.

“It’s still to this day hard for me to talk about her because I never had such devotion to someone in my life before her because she made me OK,” Schlepp said. “And she made me OK because I was always a girl that was teased and made fun of because I liked to do things that the boys liked to do, which was sports. I liked to play sports and it was in a time that that wasn’t very cool. You got called lots of names and you had to go against the grain and be strong enough to do that.

“Linda Sheridan was so much about making me love what you were doing at the moment, realizing and appreciating opportunities and not being afraid of who you were and what you liked in terms of athletics. She definitely has been the most powerful force in my life.”

Longtime Spokesman-Review columnist John Blanchette summarized the coach’s contributions in a 2013 tribute:

“Like other female coaches, Sheridan had to create a culture, hard to come by in those early days, that let her players know being an athlete was more than just OK. That they deserved the chance and an audience. Success was worth a risk, too, but it didn’t have to be consuming. Possibility, well, that was the thing that should be consuming.”

Thanks in large part to coaches like Sheridan and the many players who persevered in the early days of the GSL, that possibility has been fulfilled.