WALLA WALLA — Sooner or later it had to happen.
But it’s not likely that anyone close to the Walla Walla Community College women’s basketball program — and you can probably include Warriors coach Bobbi Hazeltine in the conversation — expected it to be this year.
Back-to-back defeats at the hands of Skagit Valley and Clark during the NWAACC Championships that finished up Tuesday night at the Toyota Center in Kennewick snapped a string of 12 consecutive years in which the Warriors earned a place among the top seven teams in the tournament’s 16-team field.
The Warriors were in tears following Sunday afternoon’s 56-51 loss to Skagit Valley, distraught that their championship hopes had ended. Dismay is probably a better word to describe the look on Hazeltine’s face after Clark eliminated WWCC from the trophy round with a 75-70 victory in Monday’s loser-out game.
“It’s over,” Hazeltine said. “We’re going home a day early. This has never happened before.”
What’s hardest to come to grips with is the realization that this year’s Warriors entered the tournament as one of the favorites after winning the Eastern Region championship. Their 23-3 record going into Saturday’s first-round game against Southwest Oregon was among the best in the field.
And after Saturday’s relatively smooth 71-57 victory over the Lakers, it was so easy to assume that another trophy — perhaps another championship to go along with the school’s 2001 and 2010 NWAACC titles — was there to be had.
After all, Hazeltine’s teams had a track record of overachieving come tournament time. The coach is recognized for her ability to overcome obstacles and get more out of less.
A perfect example is the 2001 team that won the championship after placing fourth in the East during the regular season. The following year the Warriors were again fourth in the division but placed third at the NWAACCs. And in 2006, WWCC lost to Lane in the tournament’s championship game after a third-place finish in the division.
To be fair, there have been some disappointments as well.
The 2004 Warriors, for example, won the East title but wound up fifth in the tournament. The following year, WWCC tied for the division title and placed fourth at the NWAACCs.
But there was something about this year’s team that suggested a championship was in the works.
With eight sophomores on the roster, it wasn’t a rebuilding year by any stretch. Also, Hazeltine didn’t have to overcome the rash of injuries that have threatened so many past seasons. It was a team seemingly without a weakness.
And when the Warriors won 18 of their first 19 games, expectations soared.
But athletic success is a fickle friend. And sometimes a team’s fortunes can turn on a dime.
Or a sprained ankle, which at least in part explains the Warriors’ early exit on Monday.
WWCC sophomore Michelle Seitz, the Eastern Region’s Player of the Year and her team’s scoring, rebounding and assist leader coming into the tournament, went down in a heap on the defensive end of the court in the final minutes of Sunday’s loss to Skagit Valley. She had just hit a 3-point shot to pull the Warriors within three points of the Cardinals, 48-45, with 3:54 remaining in the game.
Seitz, who had also spent time on the sidelines in the first half after taking a hard fall, limped to the WWCC bench and did not return.
Although the Warriors rallied to tie the game at 51-51 on six consecutive points by sophomore Caitlin Duncan, WWCC couldn’t sustain the momentum with its leader on the bench.
“She is our go-to girl in situations like that,” Hazeltine said. “And we didn’t have her.”
Hazeltine didn’t think Seitz would play in Monday’s loser-out game. But the 5-foot-6 guard talked herself into the lineup and contributed 11 points on 4-for-17 shooting and collected seven rebounds, all of them on the defensive end.
“She sure wasn’t 100 percent, but she wanted to play,” Hazeltine said of the decision to play Seitz against Clark. “Our trainer gave her the OK, her parents said OK and she begged to play.
“It was a sprain, and she has all spring, winter and fall to recover. She couldn’t go to the basket very well, and she had trouble on defense. But she did hit a few shots for us.”
Seitz’s limitations aside, there were other issues that led to the Warriors’ demise. Most notably shooting percentages and defensive breakdowns.
After shooting 73 percent from the free-throw line during the regular season, WWCC made 17-of-30 free throws in its two tournament defeats, an uncharacteristic 57 percent. And the Warriors were 69-for-189 from the field in their three tournament games, 36 percent compared to 39 percent coming into the tourney.
But it was the defensive lapses that grated Hazeltine.
“Once again we did not play defense very well,” Hazeltine said following the loss to Clark. She had made the same assessment following the Skagit Valley game.
“That’s disappointing. Because we played so well on defense during the league season. For a team loaded with sophomores, that’s not something you expect.”
Hazeltine now faces a true rebuilding campaign.
Along with Seitz and Duncan, she will have to replace posts Hailey Felgenhauer and Gabby Anderson as well as guards Brooke Hawkins, Allie Kelsey, Rachel Wolfe and Nadine Giardina next season. Felgenhauer joined Seitz on the all-Eastern Region first team, Duncan was a second-team selection and Hawkins and Kelsey were both starters.
Freshmen Amy DeLong, a 5-10 guard, and MeShel Rad, a 5-10 forward, were key players off the bench for WWCC over the course of the season and in the tournament. Two other freshman, 5-8 guard Josie Jordan and 5-10 forward Jessica Siler, made key contributions in their brief playing time during the tourney.
The Warriors coach is no doubt already in the process of filling the voids.