WALLA WALLA — Bobby Hazeltine scoffs at the suggestion that her team is the clear-cut favorite heading into Saturday afternoon’s NWAACC Eastern Region women’s basketball opener against Columbia Basin College in Pasco.
The 2 p.m. clash pits the 11-1 Warriors against the defending NWAACC champions, who have gotten off to a slow start. The Hawks are 4-8 after 12 non-league games, but they’re as dangerous as ever, Hazeltine insists.
In fact, every team in the East is capable of winning the division, the Warriors coach warned.
“There won’t be a single easy game this year,” Hazeltine said. “Always in the past there has been a game or two where you could say, ‘We should be OK,’ but not this year. And I am not kidding.
“Columbia Basin doesn’t have a great record right now, but I’ve been watching them on film. They played the No. 1 team in the conference and stayed right with them for the majority of the game. And that’s who we have to open up against — the defending champs.”
Lane, which hosts Mount Hood Saturday in its Southern Division opener, is 14-0 on the season and ranks No. 1 in the NWAAACC women’s poll. The Titans defeated CBC 82-69 Dec. 29 in a crossover tournament at Chemeketa CC in Salem, Ore.
Walla Walla is 11-1 and ranks second behind the Titans. Hazeltine is not impressed.
“Our record means nothing at this point,” Hazeltine said. “Our schedule has been up and down. We’ve played some really good teams and some pretty poor teams.
“We’ve played some teams that weren’t real competitive, but three or four of the teams we’ve beaten were quality teams. You can read a lot into that, but none of it counts.”
The Warriors will take a 10-game winning streak into Saturday’s game at CBC. The Warriors’ only loss came Nov. 17 in the second round of the Yakima Tipoff Tournament when Centralia overcame a 27-point deficit in the second half and defeated Walla Walla 95-91 in double overtime.
“I told the girls at the time that that loss could help us down the road, and I think that it has,” Hazeltine said.
Hazeltine’s roster features six sophomores who have almost exclusively carried the load to this point and a talented but inexperienced group of freshmen who play sparingly as they adapt to their coach’s intricate expectations.
“There’s such a big difference between our sophomores and our freshmen right now, and our sophomores are getting most of the minutes,” Hazeltine said. “I’ve tried to give our freshmen as much experience as possible during the preseason, but there’s such a huge difference when I take the sophomores out.”
Hailey Felgenhauer, the only returning starter from last year’s squad that finished third in the NWAACC Championships, leads the Warriors in scoring with a 17-point average, which ranks 10th in the NWAACC. Michelle Seitz, a key reserve last season, averages 14 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds per game. And Caitlin Duncan, a starter two years ago who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is also in double figures with a 10-point scoring average.
Sophomore point guard Brooke Hawkins ranks fourth in the NWAACC in assists per game with 4.8. Allie Kelsey, a sophomore transfer, is Hazeltine’s fifth starter and scores at a 6.7 clip. And 6-foot-2 post Gabby Anderson, who saw limited minutes as a freshman, is usually Hazeltine’s first player off the bench.
MeShel Rad and Amy DeLong are the two freshmen who have seen the most playing time so far. And Hazeltine is eager to work Jessie Siler into the mix as she recovers from a knee injury.
“MeShel has probably played the most of all the freshmen,” Hazeltine said of the 5-10 Rad. “She is so athletic and such good rebounder, it’s hard to keep her out of there.
“Amy Delong has also come a long way. She had a great game against Portland (an 89-44 win Dec. 8 in Portland), and she showed signs of brilliance in Seattle (Highline’s crossover tournament) right before Christmas.”
Siler, a top recruit out of Umatilla, Ore., injured her knee in practice before the team’s first game and didn’t see her first action until the Highline tournament.
“We gave her a couple of minutes here and there at the crossover tournament, and five or six minutes against Portland (a 69-48 win last Saturday in the Dietrich Dome),” Hazeltine said of Siler. “She has a chance to be pretty good, but right now she’s in the same boat as the rest of the freshmen.
“It’s all about experience for these freshmen, and right now I’m leaning on my sophomores.”
Big Bend, which is 10-4 on the season and tied for fourth in the NWAACC rankings, appears to be the Warriors’ chief threat to the division title. Spokane is 7-5, Yakima 7-6 and Blue Mountain 5-7 in preseason games. Treasure Valley has struggled to a 1-10 start.
Hazeltine views them all with a wary eye.
“I have seen how good we can be, and how bad we can be,” she said. “I think if our kids play up to their potential, we have as good a shot as anybody to make the tournament.
“But this is going to be a tough division. We could be 14-0, or 0-14. Right now I’ll settle for fourth place and a spot in the tournament, because that is what is most important.”