WALLA WALLA - When freshman scoring leader Alex Pfefferle blew out her knee in the quarterfinals of the NWAACC Championships women's basketball tournament Sunday night in Kennewick, Walla Walla coach Bobbi Hazeltine instinctively looked to the end of her bench.
There, dressed in street clothes, sat Hailey Felgenhauer, a 5-foot-11 freshman small forward from Fruitland, Idaho, who was in the final days of her redshirt year. Felgenhauer, who had suffered a similar injury in her final game as a high school senior, had been cleared to play back around Thanksgiving, but Hazeltine and the player's parents agreed to redshirt her just the same.
"We talked," Hazeltine recalled, "and Hailey's parents decided that three years at WWCC would be OK."
So the redshirt stayed on, and Felgenhauer spent the entire season as a practice player who was ineligible to participate in games. But there were times, Hazeltine said, when she was tempted to remove the redshirt.
"She was one of the best high school players in the Boise Valley," Hazeltine said. "That's why we stayed on her even after the injury. I wanted her anyway."
And watching Felgenhauer in practice day after day, Hazeltine was convinced that she had made the right decision.
"She is pretty good," the coach said. "Every day in shooting drills, she was the best shooter we had. And every time we had a bad shooting game, I told her I was ready to pull her redshirt."
Hazeltine resisted, of course, even when Pfefferle's injury left a gaping hole in the Warriors' offensive scheme in the midst of the team's bid for a second straight title. Losing an entire year of Felgenhauer's eligibility was simply too steep a price to pay.
But beginning today, Felgenhauer becomes a full-fledged member of the team and a key piece of the Warriors' future.
Even though there were just a pair of sophomores on this year's WWCC squad, which posted a 22-7 record and lost to Yakima 53-40 in Tuesday's championship game, Hazeltine is already busy restocking the roster. There are areas that need to be improved, she said, and she doesn't anticipate that every one of the 12 freshmen on this year's team will return for their sophomore season.
"Half of them, maybe two thirds will come back," she estimated. "We had a bunch of kids who didn't get to play very much, and some of them won't come back because they can see the writing on the wall.
"But I told all of them after Tuesday's game, they are the classiest kids I have ever coached. There wasn't a pouter on the team. I never had one player approach me and complain about playing time."
Hazeltine plans to recruit new players at every position. She never again wants to get caught, she said, in the position she found herself this year without a returning post player or a returning point guard.
"In junior college, you have to balance your roster and have returning players each year at every position," Hazeltine said. "We were so loaded last year that we got out of balance."
And the process has already begun. Hazeltine has already received a couple of verbal commitments from high school seniors and entertained a couple of campus visits.
"Starting Friday we will be bringing in even more kids, and that will continue right up until the April 1 signing date," Hazeltine said. "We have a big list right now, and I plan to bring in at least six-to-eight new players."
The other piece of the puzzle is further development of the players Hazeltine expects to return.
"First of all, we have to get stronger, and that means weight-room work will be important," she said. "And we have to get quicker.
"We didn't have a post presence this year, our guards need to be better ball-handlers, we need to get some offense out of the point guard position, and we need to become better shooters."
One of the issues this season, the coach said, was that there wasn't enough time stressed on developing individual skills.
"Because we brought in practically a whole new team, we focused most of our time on team aspects," Hazeltine said. "It was hard to concentrate on individual stuff. Our spring will be focused on individual work, and I think there is a lot of potential there."
Hazeltine will also spend some time this spring getting her two sophomores, Shiann Dreadfulwater and Morgan Wolff, placed in four-year schools.
"They are probably NAIA or NCAA Division III players, and they both want to keep playing if they can," Hazeltine said. "We have had coaches calling us all year about them, and I'm sure some others saw them play in the tournament who might be interested in them.
"They both had some big games for us this year, but statistics is not where they stand out," she added. "They were our team captains and our leaders. They were the two I would always go to to talk about team things, and they had a lot of respect from the freshmen. They gave us leadership more than anything."
Although Walla Walla loses only those two to graduation, the Warriors weren't the youngest in the NWAACC this year. That honor belongs to NWAACC champion Yakima, which loses just one sophomore off of this year's roster.
Hazeltine admits that contending with the Yaks will be in the back of her mind as she puts together next year's team. But only so far.
"I know that I am going to be looking for a girl who can drive and finish," she said. "And I know we are going to need a post presence. At the same time, I recruit a certain type of player.
"I am kind of all about character," she said. "It seems like I get a lot of small-school farm girls and I'll take their work ethic over anything else. And we've been winning with that and I'm not going to change it.
"There are players out there who couldn't play here. We pass up on some great athletes who couldn't make grades here or who aren't the type of citizens we want. I would rather have quality kids and no headaches than win with kids who don't fit our philosophy."
Contact Jim Buchan at email@example.com