Womens basketball team enjoys remarkable turnaround
by Nick Dawson
Since PLU made a move to the National Collegiate Athletic Association at the start of the 1998-99 school year, few Lute athletic teams have enjoyed the success experienced by the womens basketball team.
A scant decade ago the Pacific Lutheran women cagers
finished with only two wins in 24 games. Seven seasons ago PLU was 17-9,
only the second winning record in the previous 15 seasons. At that point,
Gil Rigell took over the program,
and the results have been undeniably remarkable.
In his first season, 1997-98, Rigell led the Lutes
to a 21-7 record and their initial Northwest Conference championship.
The team lost in the first round of the National Association of Intercollegiate
Athletics national tournament, but the groundwork was clearly in place
for PLUs jump to NCAA Division III status.
In the past five years the PLU womens basketball
team has won the Northwest Conference championship outright three times
and shared it once. In four NCAA tournament appearances the Lutes have
twice reached the Elite Eight, once the Sweet 16, and the other time lost
in the second round. Pacific Lutheran has compiled a 7-4 overall record
in its four NCAA tournament appearances.
For a program that 10 years ago struggled to win a single game, the turnaround has been outstanding.
Rigell came to PLU in 1995 as a student, after earning
his associates degree at Green River College and coaching basketball
and tennis for several years at Lakes High School.
As a 32-year-old, Rigell compiled a 9-0 singles record
while playing for the 1996 PLU mens tennis team. The next fall,
he became an assistant coach for the womens basketball program.
One year later he took over as the head coach, and in each of the next
six seasons the Lutes won at least 20 games. The highlight was the
2001-02 team that won a school record 23 games before losing in an
Elite Eight game to eventual national champion Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
The six straight 20-win seasons is particularly noteworthy because never
before in the history of the PLU womens basketball program had any
team enjoyed a 20-win season.
Rigell has a 127-37 win-loss record, a .774 winning percentage. He ranks among the national leaders in Division III for winning percentage by a coach.
His coaching job this past season may have been his
best, and the Lutes played their best basketball of the season when it
mattered most. They advanced all the way to the Sweet 16. After finishing
second during the Northwest Conference season, PLU beat Puget Sound at
home and regular season champion Whitworth in Spokane to earn the conferences
automatic berth in the national tournament.
After a first round bye, the Lutes beat Gustavus
Adolphus (Minn.), 68-54, at home, in the second round of the NCAA playoffs.
The Lutes then traveled to Wisconsin, where for the second straight year
they were eliminated from the tournament. This time, No. 1-ranked Wisconsin-Eau
Claire scored a basket with 3.2 seconds left to hold off the unranked
Lutes, 43-41. "We had our chances. We had good looks throughout the
game, the kind of shots that weve been making in recent games, but
we didnt put them down," said Rigell. "But they battled,
too. They were tough."
The previous season, the Lutes lost their top three
players in all-conference honorees Becky Franza 02, Jessica Iserman
02 and Jamie Keatts 02. The returnees represent only 31 percent
of scoring and 35 percent of rebounding from the 2001-02 conference championship
Rigell built the team around two veteran players,
5-8 senior Hilary Berg 03 and 6-3 junior Courtney Johnson 04.
Berg was the teams "spiritual" leader who played each
game with fierce determination. Johnson was a pivotal performer on offense,
leading the Lutes with 11 points per game, and on defense where she finished
among the national leaders by averaging nearly 4.5 blocks per game. She
received first team All-Northwest Conference recognition.
Sophomore Shannon Hayes 05, a returning starter,
improved on offense and generally drew the assignment of stopping the
opponents top scorer. Aundi Kustura 05 recovered from a foot
injury to average 7.7 points per game.
Then there were the newcomers. Mallory Mann 06, a freshman from Conway, Ark., replaced Franza at point guard and had a stellar first season with averages of 5.6 points and 4.5 assists per contest. "Mallorys poise and great court awareness played a key role for us making the national tournament," Rigell said.
Freshman Kelly Turner 06 finished second in the nation in three-point shooting percentage (48 percent) and earned second team All-Northwest Conference honors, and freshman Anna Sticklin 06 led the Lutes in scoring in several late-season games. Transfers Pam Isaacson 06 and Sara Wilcox 05 were key contributors off the bench.
"Gil has done a good job as coach of the womens
basketball team," said PLU Athletic Director Paul Hoseth. "To
take a young team such a long way in the national tournament is indicative
of his coaching ability."
The good news about the 2002-03 PLU womens basketball team, besides a trip to the Sweet 16 and a 21-8 final record, is that the team loses only one player, senior Hilary Berg. "Its so darn tough getting out of our conference," said Rigell, "that we like our chances once we get out. Were right there, were knocking on the door."
PLU, one of only five non-Division I four-year schools in the Pacific Northwest and Canada to offer collegiate wrestling, has dropped its wrestling program.
The lack of Division III and Northwest Conference
wrestling programs was a primary factor in the decision. With the demise
of the PLU program, Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., is the only
remaining Division III school in the Northwest Conference, and in the
Pacific Northwest region, with a wrestling program. All other varsity
sports at PLU are affiliated with the Northwest Conference or are moving
in that direction. All have strong regional and national connections.
"Our preference is not to drop sports, but Northwest Conference and Division III wrestling in the Northwest is essentially non-existent," Athletic Director Paul Hoseth said. "This has not been easy and certainly was not taken lightly." Hoseth told head coach John Aiken 98 in April, then made the announcement to team members.
Hoseth pledged that the PLU athletic department "will
work with the current wrestlers to help them with their future plans,"
including possible transfer to other institutions with wrestling programs.
Of 16 wrestlers listed on this years roster, none are seniors, and
13 of them competed. The top wrestler during the 2002-03 season was junior
04, who won the Division III Great Lakes Regional championship at
174 pounds to earn a berth at the national tournament. In five years as
a NCAA Division III member, PLU sent three wrestlers to nationals.
Among the remaining non-Division I wrestling programs in the Pacific Northwest are Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, B.C., Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Southern Oregon University in Ashland, and Pacific University.
"The athletes should be the No.1 priority and
right now they dont feel like they are," said Aiken, a PLU
All-America wrestler who coached the last five years. "They are going
to have to change
By Nick Dawson
PLU Wrestling All Americans
(Top 6 finish at National Tournament)
Paul Giovannini, 5th, 134 lbs. (1981)
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