| Looking Ahead
a National Championship
THE NATURAL INCLINATION would be to look back, to dissect a particular performance, to relive the thrills of victory or the agony of a defeat. But in the afterglow of another stellar season, several Seattle Pacific University women’s basketball players find themselves peering intently toward the future.
Valerie Gustafson cuts down the net to celebrate the Falcons’ regional win, which sent the women to the Elite Eight.
A program that has absorbed just two losses in the past two years,
Falcon women’s basketball isn’t done yet. The Great Northwest Athletic
Conference crown and the trip to Missouri and the NCAA Elite Eight
in late March felt more like a beginning than an end.
With all but
two seniors scheduled to come back next year, Gordy Presnell’s
talented, fun-loving group is already getting geared up to go back
to the Elite Eight — and just a bit further — in 2005.
after the last tears were shed following a quarterfinal loss at
Saint Joseph Civic Arena, returning SPU players began appearing
in Brougham Pavilion, working on their jumpers and jab-steps, and
going about the business of preparing to come back as better individuals
and a stronger team next season.
That’s a difficult proposition. This was the team’s finest season
ever: 30 consecutive wins, a
regional championship and a final ranking of No. 3 in the nation.
And Presnell was named Coach of the Year in NCAA Division II for
the second year in a row, accepting his award at a ceremony in
It was a good season, even a great one. Yet no one
seems satisfied. “We showed just glimpses of the team that won
30 games,” says sophomore sparkplug guard Mandy Wood of the 94–83
tournament loss to Drury, the nation’s No. 2-ranked team. Backed
by some 2,000 fans, the Drury Panthers from Springfield, Missouri,
advanced to the NCAA Division II championship game, falling 75–72
to California (Pennsylvania). That outcome served to demonstrate
just how close SPU has come to the top of the 276-team heap.
“You learn a lot from a loss,” Wood says. “I’ve lost only two games,
but it lights a fire inside you. It makes you work harder, knowing
that you got that close.”
Wood says the experience factor cannot
be minimized, citing the lessons learned in the 2003 regional championship
contest. Seattle Pacific had won its first 29 games and was cruising
against Cal State-Bakersfield. Ten more minutes and the West title
would have been theirs. But instead of going gung-ho toward the
final buzzer, the Falcons grew hesitant and conservative, and Bakersfield
crept back. Rather than play to win, the SPU women played not to
lose. The Roadrunners won the game, and the bitter lesson was learned.
to the 2004 regional title contest at Brougham Pavilion. Once again,
Seattle Pacific was in charge, this time against Cal Poly-Pomona.
But when the Broncos made their move midway through the second
half, the Falcons were ready. They summoned clutch plays, one after
the other. Guard Amy Taylor connected on a couple of threes, and
the home team finished the night with a 25–12 run and a trip up
the ladder for the ceremonial cutting of the nets.
“When they started
coming back, there was no doubting ourselves,” remembers Wood. “We
knew we were going to win.” When it mattered most, experience gave
them a feeling of calm rather than nerves.
Wood and fellow sophomore
Carli Smith, the team’s top rebounder, never dreamed they would
become part of such a juggernaut when they joined the Falcons.
Presnell’s teams were regular playoff participants, yet it was
the program’s personality that sold Smith.
“I loved the girls; that’s
why I came. I felt welcomed,” Smith explains. “We have this rare
atmosphere; we’re all friends. That’s a key part of our success,
Looking forward, the Falcons hope that the addition
of recruits such as Washington High School Player of the Year Quinn
Brewe and the further development of young players such as Wood
and Smith will offset the loss of Valerie Gustafson, the GNAC Player
of the Year, and Kristin Poe, an all-conference pick and team leader.
strengthened schedule next season could jeopardize the regular
season unbeaten streak of 60 games. No matter, says Smith. “We
respect our opponents, but we play to a higher standard here at
SPU. We feel we shouldn’t lose.”
Winning streaks and No. 1 rankings
have created a buzz about the team for the past two years, but
all that matters now is to win the last six games of the NCAA tournament,
including the deciding game. “I have two years left, and each year
now, we will be setting the ultimate goal,” says Wood. “We’ve realized
that the only poll that counts is the final one, and hopefully
in these next couple years, there will be at least one national
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