WALLA WALLA - Bobbi Hazeltine's 13th season in charge of the Walla Walla Community College women's basketball program has been a fairly smooth ride.
Other than one early season scare when scoring leader Leslie Stillar appeared to suffer a serious knee injury, it has been a relatively injury-free season. Stillar recovered quickly. And other than the "usual bumps and bruises," Hazeltine hasn't had to manipulate her lineup due to health issues.
And with a roster weighted with six tournament-tested sophomores, it became evident early in the Eastern Region campaign that the Warriors would have no problem securing one of the division's four tickets to the NWAACC Championships. Walla Walla wound up second in the division, two games behind East champion Columbia Basin and a whopping six games in front of fifth-place Big Bend.
"This is one of the first times I can remember where it has been so cut and dried," Hazeltine said.
So why does Hazeltine approach this year's tournament - her team's 12th consecutive appearance - in her normal state of trepidation?
Because she's a worrywart, that's why. Either that or the psychological skills she uses in preparing her team for the 16-team dance that begins Saturday at the Toyota Center in Kennewick are simply off the chart.
It's probably a little bit of both.
Here's a small sample:
Last year's Warriors qualified for the tournament on the final weekend of the regular season as a No. 4 seed, and Hazeltine feared greatly that her team would make an early exit and return home empty-handed for the first time in her Walla Walla tenure. WWCC wound up playing for the championship on the final night.
In 2010, Walla Walla took a 24-1 record into the tournament and went on to win the second NWAACC title in school history. But on the eve of the tournament, Hazeltine was troubled by her team's No. 2 seed - co-East champion Yakima received the top seed based on a preseason tie-breaker - and a first-round game against a third-seeded Umpqua squad that she described as "the hottest team in the entire NWAACC."
So what's to worry about this year, Bobbi?
"I never know what to expect from this team," the coach said. "Our possibilities are big, but our biggest weakness is our consistency. I get nervous every time our team takes the floor because I don't know which team is going to show up."
Whichever team it is, it will feature six players who made positive contributions a year ago when the Warriors surprised NWAACC fans from one end of the Toyota Center to the other by pulling off three consecutive upsets before losing to Yakima in the championship game.
"We have six kids who played in last year's championship game," Hazeltine admitted. "You don't get to say that most of the time at this two-year level.
"I know that our girls want to get back to that game, and they know what it takes. And I think our experience is really going to help us."
Another factor that could favor the Warriors beginning Saturday is depth.
"Along with our sophomores, we have a great freshman class," Hazeltine said. "We have a very deep bench."
And that might make the Warriors a difficult team to prepare for.
"I like to think so," Hazeltine said. "The fact that so many kids do so many different things is an advantage. We have a lot of different weapons and run a lot of different stuff. We run stuff to all kinds of different people."
Walla Walla, No. 3 in the NWAACC's final regular-season poll, takes a 20-6 season mark into Saturday's first-round game against Pierce. The Raiders are 17-9 overall and the third seed out of the Western Region, which on paper appears to be the weakest of the four.
Neither West champion Centralia (19-8) nor second-place Clark (20-6) is among the ranked teams in the final NWAACC poll.
So there's nothing to worry about, right coach?
"The conference we're playing is very even," Hazeltine said of the Western Region. "Any one of those top three teams could flip-flop at any time. So we are certainly going to be playing a tough team in the first round.
"And if we win, we will probably get a No. 1 in the second round."
Contact Jim Buchan at firstname.lastname@example.org.