Oct. 13, 1999
PULLMAN, Wash. - Around the Washington State campus this fall there is talk of the Cougars playing in The Big Dance in March.
Not since 1991 have the Cougars enjoyed an appearance in The Big Dance, a.k.a. the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship, but a veteran orchestra and a new maestro have players and fans alike looking ahead to the new millennium with anticipation.
Jenny Przekwas, a veteran of the last four NCAA tournaments, has taken over the reins of the Cougar women's basketball program and she starts her WSU career by inheriting 11 returning veterans, including four starters from last year's 11-16 team.
All-Pacific-10 Conference guard Tricia Lamb and backcourt mate Katie Nyseth return, as does fellow junior Yvonne Volkman and senior Alke Dietel at forward. The quartet played in 85 games between them last winter and 76 contests the year before. They are joined by four juniors, two seniors and one sophomore, as returnees. Collectively, WSU's hoopsters have made 210 starts. But while the Cougars return one of the most experienced squads in the Pac-10, the biggest single factor for renewed optimism is Przekwas, who directed St. Francis College (PA) to NCAA tournament berths each of the last four years, along with four NEC titles. She owns a 133-99 (.573) career mark.
Przekwas teams are known for their stifling, pressure defenses and a controlled but up tempo offense.
"We like to focus on defense, solid fundamentally sound defense," says the new Cougar coach, who replaced 18-year mentor Harold Rhodes last spring. "As long as we can take care of the ball, get good shots and make good shots, we will look to push the ball up the court. My philosophy is a controlled fast break."
In Nyseth, Przekwas has a two-year starter at point guard known for her steady play, a playmaker who looks to set up her teammates and who seldom turns the ball over.
When it comes to offense, few can light it up outside like Lamb, who was third in Pac-10 scoring last year at 16.4 points per outing. Lamb also drained a school record 69 three-pointers and twice she scored 33 points in a game a year ago and against Arizona canned a school record eight treys, seven in the first half.
Lamb is only the third Cougar to score over 700 points in her first two years. While starting all 54 games in two years, she has tallied 707 points, hit 99 treys (fifth all-time at WSU) and shot 36.8 percent (fifth) from outside the arc.
However, Lamb is not the only Cougar player who enjoys success firing from long range. Dietel, who has 40 career starts in two years at forward, ranks 11th on WSU's career list with 64 three-pointers. After being named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman team two seasons ago, she was well on her way to an All-Pac-10 season last winter when she suffered a season-ending knee injury (ACL, left knee) Jan. 20, 14 games into the season.
At the time of her injury, Dietel was ranked high in four Pac-10 categories, averaging 17.0 points (third) and 7.3 rebounds (fifth). At the free throw line, she was shooting 77.8 percent (fourth) and from three-point range the 6-4 forward was shooting 37.2 percent (sixth). Dietel is also outstanding in the classroom, boasting a 3.23 grade point average in interior design that earned her GTE Academic All-America third team honors in the district last year.
Volkman is a strong 5-11 forward who averaged 8.1 points while starting 17 games last season. She also was fifth on the team in rebounds with 4.1 per game.
The Cougars should also benefit this season by the return of junior Joanna Smith, a 5-10 shooting guard who took a season off after battling through a series of injuries as a sophomore in 1998. In fact, it was Smith's record of 68 treys in one season (as a freshman in 1997) that Lamb broke in the final game last March. In her two previous seasons Smith made 25 starts, hit 107 treys (third on WSU's career list) and shot 40.4 percent from three-point range. After her record-setting freshman season, she came back to hit 39 treys as a sophomore during an injury-plagued campaign.
A pair of senior guards will also play key roles in Przekwas' first Cougar season. While she didn't make a start last year, Jen Kerns provided an offensive spark off the bench, playing both the point and shooting guard roles. She finished fourth last year for the Cougars averaging 9.3 points. Kerns, in her three seasons, ranks eighth on the WSU career list with 240 assists. She is sixth in three point shooting, 37.6 percent, and fourth at the free throw line, where she has hit 72 percent of her attempts. In the final 10 games a year ago, she averaged 12.3 points, handed out 33 assists and hit 23-of-51 trey attempts (45.1 percent) and 43-of-87 field goals (49.4 percent).
Cathy McNeely was a starter last season until sidelined for eight games with a strained knee in the Pac-10 opener at Washington. She returned for the final four weeks of the season and ended the year averaging 10.7 points and nearly three rebounds a game.
Two other guards also return for WSU, juniors Niki Castle and Jessica Collins. While neither have been called on for starting duty during their careers, both bring battle-tested offensive skills to the floor for the Cougars.
Contrast may well be the theme of WSU's post players this fall. The returning veteran is junior Victoria Harrod, a six-footer known for her mobility, if not her bulk. She made three starts last year and averaged 6.6 points and 4.4 rebounds while playing in all 27 games.
If a newcomer is to break into WSU's lineup, it will be in the person of 6-3 freshman Kelley Berglund, the most likely candidate to replace departed starter Sheri Quinton. Berglund earned All-State honors last year at Port Angeles (WA) High School and could be just what WSU needs to establish an inside presence this winter.
Another front line player returning this year is WSU's lone sophomore, 6-1 Romie De Anda. Last year the forward saw action in 21 games as a freshman, averaging 2.2 points.
Jessica Ottmar, a 6-0 guard from Central Kitsap (WA) High School rounds out the Cougar squad. Ottmar was a late recruit, joining the club after Przekwas was named head coach. She averaged 20.3 points as a senior and can also play along the front line if needed.
"I said when I took the job in April there was a tremendous amount of potential at Washington State," Przekwas offers. "During the spring I felt that potential while working with the players. My outlook for the upcoming season is very positive."
And there is nothing the new Cougar head coach would like more than a fifth consecutive trip to The Big Dance. Ditto the Cougar players, who have unreservedly embraced the new coach, her philosophy, and her past successes of taking teams to the NCAA tournament.