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Spring 2004 | Volume 26, Number 6 | Athletics
Looking Ahead

Falcon Women Keep Their Sights on 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.

Two weeks 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 New Orleans.

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.

Fast-forward 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, that bond.”

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.

A 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 championship.”


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From the President
As today’s opinion-shapers declare the Christian message irrelevant, Seattle Pacific University President Philip Eaton reminds us: “For two billion people, the resurrection of Jesus Christ changed everything.”

“This Is Our Campaign”
Creativity and commitment are the hallmarks of faculty contributions, including finding precision science equipment and seeking grants. [Campaign]

Acting on AIDS
A student-led campaign encouraging a Christian response to a world pandemic had the campus seeing orange. [Campus]

When Disaster Strikes
As senior development officer for Northwest Medical Teams, alumnus Dick Frederick ’63 helps deliver care to those who need it most. [Alumni]

Fact or Fiction?
A new Response department reviews the best-seller The Da Vinci Code. Why is this page-turner disturbing so many Christians? [Books & Film]

My Response
Nicaraguan native Maria Antonia Caldera Hunter ’89 tells of an SPU study tour to her homeland that showed her the presence of Christ in unlikely places.