Year after year, Gonzaga Prep girls basketball coach Mike Arte would travel to the State 4A basketball tournament and ask a simple question.
When would it be the Bullpups’ turn to win a title?
After all, the Greater Spokane League had dominated the event over the decades. From Shadle Park in the 1980s, Mead and Central Valley in the ’90s and early 2000s, through Lewis and Clark as the century’s first decade wound down, Arte had seen it all. And his teams had competed well in the state’s best league.
“We would finish like fourth in our league,” said Arte, now deep into his third decade of coaching girls high school hoops, “and I would go over and watch those rounds of 16 and I’m thinking, ‘We’re better than half the teams here.’
“We certainly could have placed at state many years before that.”
It’s not as if the Bullpups hadn’t been to state. By the 21st century’s second decade, they had made six appearances. But a title? Nope. Not even a title game appearance.
Until a group of players, led by Otiona Gildon and Laura Stockton, enrolled as freshmen in 2011 and it all changed.
“I knew early on in that year we were going to be pretty good,” Arte said. “That was such a special group.”
The six would lead a Bullpups renaissance, helping earn state berths in 2012 and 2013. A fifth-place finish followed by a fourth-place one. And, then, the 2014 breakthrough. The class was all juniors. The Bullpups earned a 53-51 win over Mount Rainier and a state title.
But they weren’t alone. Senior Hannah Caudill ran the show – and added more.
“Talk about a kid who had some mental toughness,” Arte said of Caudill, who hit a key free throw with seconds remaining in the first title win.
Toughness was also a hallmark of Stockton, the State 4A Player of the Year as a senior, when the Bullpups went undefeated and topped Inglemoor for a second consecutive title. But Stockton also had other attributes.
“Laura was probably the most competitive kid I’ve ever coached,” Arte said of the guard who went on to play at Gonzaga University, her father’s alma mater. “Also the smartest basketball player I’ve ever coached. Knew the game inside and out. Knew when to pick her teammates up but also when to take over a game when she had to.”
With six players who went on to play college hoops – and a seventh who was a college track standout – from that back-to-back title-winning class, Arte knew he was blessed with riches. And with Gildon, Arte knew he was just plain blessed.
“Oti was, by far, the best talent,” he said, the admiration evident in his voice. “(Former U-Hi coach Mark) Stinson might argue with me about (Angie) Bjorklund, but Oti was, I think, the best basketball player to come out of Spokane. Her overall strength, her overall competitiveness was unmatched, though Angie had the same characteristics about her.”
There was more, though, that Arte got to know as the years went on.
“Oti was one of the most gracious kids I’ve ever coached. She was always thankful of her opportunity to be a basketball player and be a student.”
Arte went on to rave about her improvement in that regard, an improvement that allowed her to continue playing at Oregon.
Gildon’s character and personality is part of what Arte remembers most from those two magical seasons, in which the Bullpups won 50 consecutive games. It was fueled by a group of players he will never forget.
“Not only did I have talented kids,” he said, “but, you can say this six or seven years removed, those were great girls.
“They were just great young ladies that had high character.”