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Women’s 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 women’s 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 PLU’s jump to NCAA Division III status.

In the past five years the PLU women’s 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 associate’s 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 men’s tennis team. The next fall, he became an assistant coach for the women’s 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 women’s 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 conference’s 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 we’ve been making in recent games, but we didn’t 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 team.

Rigell built the team around two veteran players, 5-8 senior Hilary Berg ’03 and 6-3 junior Courtney Johnson ’04. Berg was the team’s "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. "Mallory’s 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 women’s 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 women’s 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. "It’s so darn tough getting out of our conference," said Rigell, "that we like our chances once we get out. We’re right there, we’re knocking on the door."

Shannon Hayes '04 (with ball) and Courtney Johnson '05 helped the women's basketball team become a success -- both will be back next season.

 

Head coach Gil Rigell is credited with turning the team around and has a .774 winning percentage.

PLU puts pin on wrestling program but tries to help athletes transfer

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 year’s roster, none are seniors, and 13 of them competed. The top wrestler during the 2002-03 season was junior Josh Rhoden ’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 don’t feel like they are," said Aiken, a PLU All-America wrestler who coached the last five years. "They are going to have to change
their goals and plans, and that’s the important thing.""

By Nick Dawson

 

PLU Wrestling All Americans

(Top 6 finish at National Tournament)

Paul Giovannini, 5th, 134 lbs. (1981)
Mike Agostini, 5th, 177 lbs. (1982)
Chris Wolfe, 3rd, 142 lbs. (1985)
and 4th, 142 pounds (1986)
Jeff Lipp, 6th, 177 lbs. (1985)
Adrian Rodriguez, 2nd, 126 lbs. (1987)
Bob Freund, 6th, 150 lbs. (1988)
John Godinho, 6th, 134 lbs. (1990)
Brian Peterson, 2nd, 150 lbs. (1993)
and 1st, 158 lbs. (1994)
Nate Button, 5th, 134 lbs. (1994)
Quoc Nguyen, 4th, 118 lbs. (1995)
Tuan Nguyen, 4th, 118 lbs. (1996)
and 3rd, 118 lbs. (1997)
John Aiken, 2nd, 150 lbs. (1998)
J.J. Hanson, 3rd, 190 lbs. (1998)l

 

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