WALLA WALLA — This is the time of year when Bobbi Hazeltine is usually freaking out.
It’s that time of year when Walla Walla Community College’s veteran women’s basketball coach seems filled with trepidation. If it’s not injuries, it’s illness. If it’s not a lack of height, it’s a shortcoming somewhere else.
So it seemed somewhat out of sync to hear Hazeltine, who enters her 11th year at WWCC, analyze her 2009-10 team’s prospects last week in a rather calm and confident demeanor.
Maybe it’s because Hazeltine lost just two players — guards Nicole Duncan and Jennie Gabriel — from last year’s team that logged a 24-8 record, tied for second place in the Eastern Division and finished fourth in the season-ending NWAACC Championships.
Maybe it’s because she returns 5-foot-8 guard Kati Isham, last year’s player of the year in the East, as well as first-team all-division post Nancy Johnson (5-10) and three other key contributors in Kayla Hutcheson (5-11), Jaimie Berghammer (6-0) and Shelbi Isham (5-4), Kati’s little sister.
Maybe it’s because Layne Tucker (5-5), a second-team all-division guard two seasons ago who missed most of last season due to an injury, received a medical redshirt and is back with the team fully recovered from her injury.
And maybe it’s because, as usual, Hazeltine was successful in restocking her team by carefully recruiting her Idaho stomping grounds. College of Idaho transfer Morgon VanderEsch of Riggins and freshmen Shiann Dreadfulwater of Grangeville, Kassi Krebs of Burley, Morgan Wolff of Kendrick and Alexis Pickering of Kooskia represent this year’s Idaho crop.
The lone non-Idaho recruit on the WWCC roster is Cierra Silverthorn (5-7) of Tonasket, Wash.
"I will say this is the deepest team we’ve had in my years here," Hazeltine said. "Maybe not the best, but we are deep.
"Other than two or three kids — Kati, Nancy and Layne — there are going to be a lot of kids rotating in and out. Who plays the most is going to depend on who comes to play on what night. In practice we’ve had girls look really good one day and not so much the second. I think we will probably see the same thing in games."
But Hazeltine is confident that she won’t have to deal with the fatigue factor that limited the Warriors most of last season when the coach rarely went more than six or seven players deep.
Kati Isham, who recently signed a letter of intent to play at Boise State next year, is the offensive leader of the team. Playing point guard as a freshman, she averaged 23 points per game overall and 28 per game during non-league games.
Hazeltine is hopeful that she can move Isham to her natural shooting guard position. But that decision won’t be made unless someone else steps up and handles the point.
Shelby Isham played point guard off the bench for the Warriors last season and is a logical choice to replace her sister. But Dreadfulwater, whose older sister Allie played the point for WWCC a couple of years ago, and Krebs are a couple of freshmen who are pushing for playing time at that spot.
"Shelby is in the running for the starting point guard position," Hazeltine said of the younger Isham sister. "But regardless, she’s going to play a lot.
"Shiann can play the point, too, but she’s a true off guard. She’s in the fight for one of the two guard spots. And Kassi’s dad is a coach, so she understands the game and can handle the ball really well. She’s fighting for point guard, too, and is a real good addition."
But when it’s all said and done, Hazeltine will put her best five players on the floor to begin games.
"If we have to put Kati at the point, we will," Hazeltine said. "It’s still up in the air and we haven’t made a decision. She’s not a true point guard, but she may be our best point guard."
Johnson, who averaged 15.6 points and 8.6 rebounds as a freshman, will be a steadying influence at the low post. And Tucker, who averaged 10.5 points as a freshman two seasons ago and 8.5 points in nine games last season before she got hurt, figures to settle in at off guard.
"She’s only 5-10, but she jumps really well and is very strong down low," Hazeltine said of Johnson. "And she’s starting to get some looks from four-year schools."
Hazeltine can only hope that Johnson’s production this season matches last year.
"I would love it if her numbers were the same this year," Hazeltine said. "But a lot of people know about her now. Last year she was virtually unknown and unrecruited."
Losing Tucker last season was "a really big blow to our team," Hazeltine said. Getting her back is equally big.
"She is a really good player who has established herself," Hazeltine said. "She will be the two guard and Kati the three if she’s not at the point. They will both start."
The strange case of Kayla Hutcheson still hasn’t been resolved off the court, but the guard-forward out of Kimberly, Idaho, made a miraculous recovery on the court late last season and figures to continue to be a key cog for the Warriors this season.
Hutcheson suffered a head injury in practice prior to last season’s opener that resulted in amnesia. She continues to have no recollection of anything prior to the injury, and playing basketball has become something of a sanctuary for her.
"She is probably the best athlete on our team," Hazeltine said of Hutcheson. "She shoots well, jumps well and she’s fast, and I expect her to have a good year.
"My hope for her is that she stays healthy, doesn’t get hurt and gets to enjoy a full year. She has had to relearn everything, but what she learns she retains. She doesn’t have any problem remembering, it’s just those first 18 years ... "
Berghammer was in the starting lineup while Hutcheson was recovering. When Hutcheson returned to the lineup, Berghammer became a valuable sixth player.
"She’s more of a post player," Hazeltine said of Berghammer, who averaged 4.1 points and five rebounds last season. "She’s come in looking pretty good, and she’s in the running for a starting spot. But if she doesn’t, that’s OK because she will see plenty of playing time coming off the bench."
VanderEsch, the transfer, can play either guard or forward, Hazeltine said, and like so many others on the team "she’s in the running" for a spot in the starting lineup.
"She shoots really well, and she posts up really well, so she can play either place," Hazeltine said. "She’s a solid player. It just depends on what we need."
Dreadfulwater, who is a little taller than her graduated sister, is a true off guard with point guard skills, Hazeltine said. And she came to Walla Walla, at least in part, because of her sister’s experience as a Warrior after transferring in as a sophomore.
"Allie loved it here, and I am sure that affected Shiann’s decision," Hazeltine said. "She knew she would be taken care of here and would get a good education.
"She had other options, but she committed to us on her visit here and most kids don’t do that."
Krebs turned down an opportunity to play at a four-school in Montana to come to Walla Walla, Hazeltine noted.
"She’s fighting for that point guard spot, and she’s a real good addition for us," the coach said.
Hazeltine has known about Wolff since coaching against her mother in Idaho’s prep ranks.
"She’s been a big surprise," Hazeltine said. "I knew she would be a solid player, but she has come in and really played well, probably the best of all our freshmen. She put in a ton of time over the summer and that is going to pay off for her."
Hazeltine expects to see positive minutes from Wolff.
"It’s a 40-minute game and she will come in and contribute," Hazeltine said. "She’s just too good of a shooter to spend too much time on the bench."
Pickering and Silverthorn, the Warriors’ two interior recruits, find themselves in a situation where they will have to find minutes playing behind a trio of talented sophomores in Johnson, Hutcheson and Berghammer.
"Our freshmen post players are in a little tougher situation," Hazeltine said. "But I like our two freshmen.
"Alexis won’t be the scorer that Nancy is this year, but she could be the rebounder," Hazeltine said. "And Cierra has a chance to be one of the better players in the league, but probably not this year. They will be two very good backups and I hope I can get them the playing time they deserve."
The Warriors open the 2009-10 campaign this weekend in tournament play in Yakima.