WWCC women ready to defend NWAACC title

The Warriors open defense of their championship at 6 p.m. Saturday against Skagit Valley at the Toyota Center in Kennewick.

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WALLA WALLA - Some things never change.

And penciling Walla Walla into the women's NWAACC Championships basketball bracket each and every year certainly appears to be one of those constants.

When Walla Walla takes on Skagit Valley Saturday night at 6 in the Toyota Center in Kennewick, the Warriors will be making their 11th consecutive appearance in the tournament. The defending champions, 19-6 on the season, enter as the No. 4 seed from the Eastern Region while the Cardinals are No. 1 out of the North and own an impressive 22-4 record.

Coach Bobbi Hazeltine, now in her 12th season at WWCC, believes her team "overachieved, no question about it" in earning a ticket to this year's tournament. But she's not sure her squad is ready to deliver on another given - returning home Tuesday with a piece of hardware for the 11th straight year.

"We've never not placed at this tournament," Hazeltine said, justifiably proud of her teams' achievements. "There's never been a time when we haven't played on the fourth day. I would love to play on the fourth day this year. I'm just not sure it will happen."

The Warriors lost all but two role players to graduation from last year's remarkable 28-1 team that delivered the second NWAACC championship in school history. This year's 14-player roster includes 12 freshmen and is the least experienced team Hazeltine has coached during her Warriors tenure.

"We start two sophomores who came off the bench for us last year," Hazeltine said of 5-foot-8 guards Shiann Dreadfulwater and Morgan Jo Wolff. "There were some games where they gave us good minutes. But the way I looked at it, we were starting over with 14 kids from 14 different programs."

Nevertheless, the Warriors began the year on a nine-game winning streak and didn't suffer their first defeat until Dec. 19, when Columbia Basin eked out a 57-55 overtime victory in the Tri-Cities. Then, on New Year's Eve, Walla Walla traveled to Couer d'Alene, Idaho, where it absorbed a 98-51 thrashing at the hands of North Idaho College.

"When I look at our schedule, I thought I had made it pretty tough," Hazeltine said in retrospect. "But some of the teams we were beating were not that good. So our record looked pretty good.

"I think that NIC game kind of opened our eyes to how good we weren't."

And when the Warriors opened league play by losing three of their first five games, Hazeltine thought the writing might be on the wall.

"My goal, as always, was to get to the tournament," she said. "But at the beginning of (league play), I didn't know if we could get out of the cellar."

It was a 56-48 overtime loss to Spokane in the Dietrich Dome on Jan. 26 that turned the tide, Hazeltine said.

"We were up by two points and a ref's call with 0.5 seconds remaining allowed Spokane to take it to overtime, and then they beat us," she recalled. "That loss hit a lot of us really hard. I thought it might have cost us a chance to go to the tournament, but instead we refocused and started getting some really big wins."

The Warriors won seven of their final eight games - including a 65-49 victory over eventual division champion Columbia Basin and an 83-69 road win at Spokane - and they finished with a 10-4 division record, tied with Yakima and Spokane for second place in the division. But because of their 1-3 record in head-to-head games against the Yaks and the Sasquatch, they had to settle for the division's No. 4 tournament seed.

"It's all our fault," Hazeltine said. "Getting swept by Yakima pretty much put us fourth."

And into a first-round matchup against one of the tournament favorites.

"It seems like we can't avoid the favorites," Hazeltine said, referring to last year's tournament opener against Umpqua, one of the league's perennial powers out of the Southern Region.

"Those guys are ranked fourth in the entire NWAACC," Hazeltine said of the Cardinals. "They have a good record, they lost just once in their region and they have four sophomore starters who played in last year's tournament.

"We've come in as a four and knocked off a one before, but it will take a great effort this year. Skagit is really solid, and we don't have a lot of experience."

More than anything, Hazeltine said, what the Warriors lack this year is a dependable game-in, game-out scorer.

"We don't have that go-to girl we had last year," Hazeltine said, an obvious reference to NWAACC Most Valuable Player Kati Isham and fellow all-East and all-NWAACC tourney player Nancy Johnson. Isham, a guard who now plays at Boise State, averaged 23 points per game and Johnson, a post who transferred to Carroll College, averaged 17.

"With this team it's a different player every night," Hazeltine said. "We have five players who are averaging between nine and 11 points a game, and the majority of our scoring comes off the bench."

Dreadfulwater tops the list with an 11.9 scoring average, and 5-9 reserve guard Alex Pfefferle is next at 11 points even. Another reserve, 5-6 guard Leslie Stillar, is at 10.6, Wolff averages 8.8 and Caitlin Duncan, the DeSales product, is at 8.4

Tai Jensen, a 6-0 post, averages 5.5 points per game and is the Warriors' best inside scoring threat.

"We are a guard-oriented team," Hazeltine said. "We don't get a lot of points inside, and that's a first. But that's just the way it is.

"Alex (Pfefferle) and Leslie (Stillar) are our two best shooters, but they are both freshmen. Shiann (Dreadfulwater) and Morgan (Wolff) are shooters as well, and you can throw Caitlin (Duncan) in as well, because she's a shooter more than she is a true post.

"It's fun when they are all on the floor at the same time, but it makes us pretty small and creates some defensive mismatches."

Rebounding has been an issue all season, Hazeltine said, noting that the 5-8 Dreadfulwater is the team leader with 5.9 rebounds per game.

Janae Klarich, who starts at point guard, and reserves Mary Blevins, Sienna Edmunson and Stevie Humphries round out Hazeltine's usual 10-player rotation.

"We have depth like crazy," the coach said. "Some of the kids coming off the bench could be starters, and they usually wind up playing more than the starters. But we've decided not to mess with the lineup."

Unlike a year ago, this year's Warriors try to take advantage of their quickness on defense by pressing and trapping when opportunities present themselves.

"We didn't do it last year," Hazeltine said, "because we didn't have to."

Saturday's game could come down to how well the Warriors shoot from the perimeter, the coach said.

"Skagit Valley likes to play a zone defense," she said. "And that means you have to shoot it well, and this is one of the worst shooting teams, percentagewise, that we have ever brought to the NWAACC tournament. If we can't shoot it, we better hope we are playing good defense."

But nobody knows better than Hazeltine that anything can happen once the ball goes up for the opening tip.

"Midway in the season, I never expected us to make the tournament," she said. "But once you are in the running, you want to make it. And once you make it, you want to do well.

"I don't know if an upset is possible, but we go in hoping we have a shot to win. And I'm just thrilled that we are getting this experience for all of our freshmen."

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