Feb. 8, 2014
BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Look closely at my feet in the picture. Yes, they are three inches off the floor. That is how I felt at the first moment in fall quarter when I was asked to be honorary coach for the Western Washington University women's basketball team.
On January 23, I thrilled to complete the task and jumped to high-ten Carmen Dolfo, the head coach, as the team beat Alaska Anchorage. The experience of being behind the scenes for one game was so heady, I am still collecting my wits to express how meaningful it was to me.
Being 4' 11" tall, I have never been a player nor an ardent follower of basketball--and if I dare confess it--most organized sports. I guess I had a shorter viewpoint.
Nevertheless, winter quarter of 2013 I had the pleasure of teaching an English class with two students on the basketball team, Kayla Bernsen and Sydney Donaldson. I was struck then, not by their outstanding drive on the court--even though it was a championship year for the team--but by their unflagging work in my class. Even when they had been on the road, they came back prepared with missed coursework and minds on the academics at hand.
To support them, I attended one of their games last season, and I was astonished to experience the adrenalin-electric jazz in the stands of Sam Carver Gymnasium. What a new world to me, this realm of competitive sports.
When I was asked to be honorary coach for a game this season, I was over the moon--but scared spitless. What could I say or do that would be correct or meaningful? I asked two colleagues for help, both basketball players themselves, the teacher with whom I had co-taught the English class, Justin Ericksen, and Kelly Helms, a long-time friend and mentor. Kelly agreed to coach me, so we attended games this season to watch honorary coaches in action. Knowing my vivacity, and worrying that I'd be the first honorary coach to be expelled from the game, Kelly gave me three Don'ts for my night courtside: 1) Don't call your own time-outs (whatever). 2) Don't go stomping on the court to challenge a player you think meant harm to one of the girls (well...I'll take that into consideration). 3) Do not take the whistles away from the referees, no matter how much they annoy you (but they do annoy me--but okay, good to know it's a rule).
Informed but still frightened, I arrived at the gym on my appointed night and had the honor of joining the team in the locker room for the generic "inspirational speech." I had had their team picture on my fridge for months, looking at their faces and trying to perceive the appropriate message to give them encouragement. As a non-athlete, what word could I give them? In the end, I came clean. I told them I had nothing. I told them they were inspirational to me. Kayla, for instance, who is recovering from knee surgery and in rehab, yet for the whole year she attends practices and participates faithfully as a team member. And each one of the women, who faces the non-glamorous work of everything expected of them. I told them they had the stuff of heroes, that their everyday courage speaks to my heart. (Or that's what I meant to say). Then we went out onto the court.
And a strange thing happened...instead of the ra-ra-ness (yes, I do teach English and cheerfully form new words) that I expected, I felt something surprisingly calming. I was privy to an honorary view of the inside workings of the bond between dedicated athletes and their trusted coach. I saw the look in the women's eyes when they cheered each other, when they responded to Carmen and the other coaches' instruction, when they took the floor and when they took the bench. They all seemed to be--oh, what word captures it?--fluid somehow. Together. A team.
I cheered and cheered at that game. (Although I did not get kicked out of the game, I was asked at one point to sit down--who knew that it was important for the head coach to see the team when they were at the other end of the court? Kelly, you didn't tell me that one.) The Vikings won and I came up off the floor! The humbling experience of being honorary coach pushed me to a buzz of athletic exhilaration beyond my fears of coaching incompetence. The joy and enjoyment abide with me now. Still, the next day I awoke with a feeling of unexpected stillness, of contentedness. I had been witness to a unity at the heart of the organism that I never would have guessed existed when sitting on the noisy fan-side of the gym.
Dear Kayla and Sydney, dear Sarah, Katie, Tia, and all the other students I met that night, dear Carmen and all the coaches and assistants, dear faithful supporters who sat behind me on the team-side of the gymnasium. dear fans on the cheering side of the gym: Go Vikings. Winning is thrilling. A team that works as hard as our women basketball players do and that plays as well deserves to succeed on the scoreboard.
To me, though, the take-away wasn't about the score. It was about solidarity. If I hadn't been on the inside, I wouldn't have felt the team experience. I was honored to be the honorary, if for only one night. But if you have any further questions, please ask Kelly and Justin.
Vikings Ink Point Guard Mollie Olson out of Napavine
Olson averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 assists during her senior season to earn 2B All-State honors
Women's Basketball 2017-18 Season in Review
WWU tied for 7th in the GNAC, earned the program's 1,000th all-time win in 2017-18
Nooksack Valley star Katrina Gimmaka to Join WWU Women's Hoops
Gimmaka earned First Team 1A All-State honors and Northwest Conference MVP honors as a senior in 2017-18
Pair of Vikings Earn Great Northwest Athletic Conference Honors
Hannah Stipanovich named Second Team All-GNAC, Dani Iwami honored as GNAC Newcomer of the Year
WWU Falls 76-63 to MSU Billings in Season Finale
Vikings come up just shy of GNAC Championships berth as Yellowjackets pull away after halftime
Comeback Falls Just Short in 79-77 Loss at SFU
Anna Schwecke scores career-high 28 points on 13-for-17 shooting in the tough loss
WWU Travels to Simon Fraser, Hosts MSU Billings
Vikings enter final week of regular season vying for GNAC Championships berth
WWU Edged 78-76 by NNU in Overtime Thriller
Vikings force overtime with late 3-pointer, NNU pulls ahead in final minute of overtime
WWU and Bellingham Selected as Host for 2019 GNAC Basketball Championships
WECU Court at Carver Gym will host the 2019 GNAC Basketball Championships March 7-9, 2019
Vikings Take Down Central Washington 67-59
Hannah Stipanovich scores game-high 19 points, WWU win for fifth time over last six games
Trio of Vikings Named to GNAC All-Academic Team
Hannah Stipanovich, Amanda Lance and Lexie Bland honored by conference
Vikings to Host Central Washington and Northwest Nazarene
WWU faces CWU on Thursday, NNU on Saturday in GNAC matchups
Late Comeback Falls Short in Women's Hoops 80-62 Loss at SPU
Gracie Castaneda scores career-high 21 points as Vikings have four-game winning streak snapped
Vikings Roll To 79-51 Win at Saint Martin's
WWU wins fourth consecutive game, Vikings shoot 50.0% (28-of-56) from the field
Women's Basketball On the Road to Face SMU and SPU
Vikings face the Saints Thursday night (7 pm) and the Falcons Saturday night (7 pm)