March 13, 2014
NCAA II WEST REGIONAL WEBSITE LIVE STATS AND VIDEO STREAM
POMONA, Calif. -
By Evan O'Kelly, GNAC Information Office
As the clock wound down in the 2013-14 Great Northwest Athletic Conference Women's Basketball Tournament title game, Western Washington University senior Sarah Hill sat at the base of the scorer's table, set to check in. Her steady cadence of, "move, move, move," began as a dull roar and escalated into an ear-splitting exclamation.
More than simply encouraging her teammates to keep on their toes through a defensive stretch, she was imposing what has become the heart and soul of the Vikings.
Hill's battle cries are distinct, unforgettable and they can turn a lull in her team's energy into the passion it takes to overcome even the largest of deficits. The most recent example of Hill playing team catalyst was on Saturday, when the Vikings overcame a 16-point deficit to defeat Simon Fraser 78-74 and claim their second-straight GNAC tourney championship.
Not only was the victory a testament to the team's character and grit, but it punched their ticket to the NCAA II West Regional tournament, as the Vikings earned the No.6 seed with the GNAC's automatic berth.
"It will be nice going into the first round and playing a team we will know well," Hill said regarding the Vikings' fourth game against the Clan this season. "We are not going to be nervous and we know it won't be easy, but our team is excited and ready for battle."
As WWU prepares to face its conference rival on Friday at noon Pacific time to kick off the tournament on the campus of host Cal Poly Pomona, the team will turn to the leadership of its lone senior, Hill, for inspiration.
Hill's basketball life began at Western Washington at a young age and will fittingly conclude there at the close of the 2013-14 season. In between was a unique journey that carved her into the one-of-a-kind person she has come to be.
"I grew up in the gym because of my sister, Celeste, who was a player that helped run Western basketball camps," Hill remembered.
She was the youngest of Randy and Susie Hill's seven children, and from the time she could walk she knew all about the WWU culture.
Just as Hill had begun to grow accustomed to Carver Gym on the WWU campus, her family moved to Nebraska for a period of five years, before ending up in Richmond, Va.
"I fell in love with the empty gym in Nebraska, then finished high school in Virginia," Hill said regarding the stops along the way to her diploma.
Hill had her hands in a bit of everything during her prep years, participating in volleyball, basketball, track and soccer through all four years of high school. It wasn't until she had already begun her collegiate career that she narrowed four down to one, but initially she didn't choose basketball.
"I went away to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County to play volleyball," Hill said. "My sophomore year, I was asked if I could play basketball as well, but at that time I decided I needed to go somewhere new."
Hill found herself on the phone with her sister, who suggested that she come back to her roots and try life at Western Washington.
"At first it was a rebuilding year, because we had lost a lot of talent from the year before," Hill said regarding her first season at WWU. "The second year, making it to the Final Four was incredible. It's something you dream about but never think you'll have a chance to actually play in a game like that."
Hill did more than just dream about playing in the Final Four as a kid, as she got to experience it first hand when her sister's 1999-2000 team earned that status and she attended the game.
Much like Hill's first season at WWU, the 2013-14 season appeared to be a less glamorous one, as a significant amount of the talent that had pushed the Vikings deep into the 2012-13 NCAA playoffs had graduated.
"Again it sort of felt like a rebuilding year at first, but we didn't want to think about the season like that, especially myself being a senior," Hill said. "We knew it wasn't going to be easy and people really thought we would struggle at first because we have such a young team, but we knew that if we wanted to win we had to work hard."
Beyond putting in the effort in practice and doing the little things right, Hill's energy has become contagious across the team. Most notably, junior Sydney Donaldson serves as Hill's sidekick, as the two build on one another.
"I first met Sarah at camp going into my freshman year, and I have always been pretty vocal, but in your first year you aren't really sure what role you have on the team," Donaldson said regarding her first encounters with Hill. "I could tell that she was probably going to be the loudest one on our team and that made me a lot more comfortable."
"It's good to know I will always have someone right there backing me up," Hill said regarding Donaldson's consistent seconding of her choruses. "I have learned to do my own thing and you can't let what anyone else says matter. I learned that lesson young and I think it really applies to this season."
As the Vikings' season continues this weekend, WWU has already exceeded expectations by defending last season's GNAC title and earning a berth in the West Regional. The preseason bar wasn't set particularly high for WWU, but Hill and Donaldson recognize that their team has had the ability to be good all season long.
"It meant a lot to us and goes to show that it's all about Western's program as a whole, not just the people who are on the team," Hill said regarding the Vikings championship-clinching win over SFU last weekend. "I remember telling them at the beginning of the season that it wasn't going to be easy, but we all had to buy into this and give it our all."
While Hill won't represent WWU as a player on the court after this season, what she has contributed to the program will live on and become a part of the Western way.
"She represents such a strong woman, and I have a ton of respect for her," Donaldson said regarding Hill. "She loves big, has done everything we've asked her to do in every role, and is a truly selfless person who gives whatever she can."
"You develop not only as a basketball player but also as a woman here, and the lessons you learn are more than just basketball, they're life lessons," said Hill. "I'd love for people to look back at me and think that I love life and appreciate every day that I am given."
When WWU takes to the court on Friday, Hill's personality will fill Kellogg Gymnasium and it will be clear to all those attending that the Vikings have arrived. Her cries will ring throughout the stands, echoing out beyond the walls of the gym and on perpetually throughout time, continuously bringing Western Washington's program to life.