WALLA WALLA - Basketball has always held a special place in the athletic tradition at Walla Walla Community College.
Don Parker started it back in the early 1970s when he took the Warrior men's team to four straight NWAACC Championships and made it to the championship game during one of those trips.
The late Jim Scheele followed Parker and delivered the school's only two NWAACC championships - back-to-back no less - in 1978-79. Art Wilmore coached the Warriors for nine seasons and reached the NWAACC's championship game in 1982. And Steve Irons' teams placed third in the conference tournament twice during his four seasons at the helm.
Jeff Reinland took the reins in 1993 and has been in charge of the men's program ever since. His 282 victories over 17 seasons is the school standard, and he's taken the Warriors to nine postseason tournaments and placed in seven of those, including last year's fourth-place finish.
The history of the women's program isn't quite as impressive - at least not in those early years.
Mary Lynn Worl was the school's first women's coach beginning in 1970, and she logged a respectable 86-56 record during her eight seasons on the bench. But the NWAACC didn't provide a women's postseason tournament until the year after she stepped down.
Jerry Turner came next, and he guided the Warriors to a pair of tournament appearances in his four seasons, including a second-place finish in 1981. Turner's 1982 team lost in the first round, and the Warriors didn't make it back to the tournament for nearly a decade.
Don Boen, who coached WWCC's women's program for nine seasons and logged a 118-129 overall record, led the Warriors to the 1990 tournament, although they were eliminated in two games.
And that was it until Bobbi Hazeltine arrived upon the scene in the fall of 1999. Her first team missed the tournament, but her second went all the way, delivering the schools first NWAACC women's basketball championship in March of 2001.
And the Warriors have been on a roll ever since, placing in nine straight tournaments, including another championship season in 2010. Hazeltine's 238-91 record through 11 seasons is far and away the best in school annals.
Another season begins today.
The Walla Walla women met Bellevue this afternoon in the first round of a tipoff tournament in Yakima; the Warrior men tangle with the Linfield College junior varsity tonight at 7:30 in a non-league clash in the Dietrich Dome.
But it's going to take dynamic coaching efforts by Reinland and Hazeltine to meet their programs' high standards.
Reinland has his leading scorer back from a year ago, sharpshooter Jason Smith, but he lost his other four starters to graduation plus three key reserves. Hazeltine's task is even more daunting as she must replace all five of last year's starters and all but two backups.
Both squads are going to be top heavy with true freshmen.
Six of the 11 Warriors who will suit up tonight in the Dietrich Dome will be playing their first college basketball game, and as many as three of them could be in the starting lineup. Hazeltine's 14-player roster includes 12 freshmen.
The trick, of course, will be weathering the storm until January, when league play commences.
"Obviously, the goals are to improve every day, both in practices and in games," Hazeltine said. "My philosophy is going to be that games in November and December don't matter as long as we are improving and growing. It only counts in January."
And if the Warrior teams are able to learn and grow and improve to the point of contending in the division and qualifying for the tournament, it will be one more feather in their coaches' caps.
And then look out next year.
Which, of course, is an attitude both coaches are determined to set aside for the duration of this season.
"My experience has been that experience gives you a better chance for success," Reinland said. "Sophomore-laden teams usually do the best.
"But we are going to play our best guys this year regardless," he added. "We're going to give this team this year the best chance to be successful. And then we'll look to next year."