Walla Walla Community College
Women’s Basketball

Warriors open play tonight in rugged NWAC East

Walla Walla’s 12-1 run through the first two months of the women’s community college basketball season hasn’t changed Bobbi Hazeltine’s expectations.

Her first and foremost goal is always to get her team back to the Northwest Athletic Conference Championships. The top four teams from the East Region qualify for the 16-team, season-ending showcase, and Hazeltine is well aware that it won’t be an easy achievement in 2018.

“It’s horrible,” the veteran WWCC coach said of the strength of the NWAC East, which begins play tonight. The Warrior women entertain Spokane at 6 p.m. in the Dietrich Dome, followed by the men’s game at 8.

“Everybody in the East is so good,” Hazeltine said. “This is a great example of why we should have an RPI system and possibly get more (East) teams into the tournament. The other leagues are all weak and ours is loaded.

“But we are not to that point yet, so a bunch of really good teams are going to stay at home.”

The RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) partially ranks teams based on their strength of schedule and is used by the NCAA to determine at-large entries into its Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Oregon high schools also determine playoff berths based upon RPI calculations.

The Warriors’ 12-1 record — which, by the way, was consummated last weekend in Salem, Ore., with Hazeltine celebrating her 400th WWCC coaching victory — makes them the region favorites. That plus the presence of a trio of high-scoring guards who were all members of last year’s WWCC team which reached the NWAC title game before losing to Spokane in overtime.

Cierra Jo McKeown leads the Walla Wallans in scoring with a 20.7 average, which ranks No. 5 overall in the NWAC. Teresa Acock averages 15.6 points a game and is the Warriors’ most accurate 3-point shooter. And Jade Skidmore is very likely WWCC’s best all-around player with a 13.2 scoring average and leads the team with 8.3 rebounds per game and 4.5 assists.

“We would like to win the division and I know that everyone else looks at us as the favorites,” Hazeltine said. “But I have seen every other team in the East and I know it is going to be a dogfight to get one of those four spots.”

Big Bend, which begins league play tonight at home against Wenatchee, checks in with a 11-2 non-league record. The Knights travel to Moses Lake with a 9-4 mark.

Yakima, after a down year in 2016-17, appears to be back in a contending role. The Yaks take a 10-2 record to Pasco tonight to take on a Columbia Basin team that boasts a 9-4 record.

Spokane enters tonight’s game in the dome with a 9-2 record. And North Idaho, which draws a first-round bye, is 9-3.

Treasure Valley and Blue Mountain, who face off tonight in Pendleton, are the only East teams with losing records. The Chukars concluded the 2017 portion of their schedule with a 5-6 record and the Timberwolves are 1-10.

 While starting the season with 12 wins in 13 games doesn’t come along very often, it’s not an entirely new experience for Hazeltine since taking over the WWCC program in the fall of 1999.

“The last time we won it all we were undefeated at this time of year,” Hazeltine said, referencing WWCC’s 2010 NWAC championship squad. “We didn’t lose until mid-January that year and finished 28-1, and there were also a couple of other years when we had just one loss entering league play.”

Interestingly, WWCC’s only defeat this season came at the hands of the Lady Elite in the championship game of the Yakima Tipoff Tournament back on Nov. 19. The Lady Elite is a squad comprised of former four-year college players, including former WNBA All-Star Shoni Schimmel.

“And we played pretty well in that game, too,” Hazeltine said of the 88-76 loss. “And sometimes losing helps. You need to lose and to be pushed in the preseason. We have been tested, and all of that has helped.”

McKeown, Acock and Skidmore have been rock-solid all season long in the Warriors back court. Sophomore Kortney Hutchison and freshmen Blair Radford and McKenzie Gunter are the first three guards off the bench.

Another sophomore, Adrianna Peralez, has emerged as one of WWCC’s starting post players and freshman Taylor Turner starts alongside her in the paint. Freshman Kaileigh Dietrich-Denton is Hazeltine’s first option when either Peralez or Turner gets in foul trouble or needs a breather.

Dietrich-Denton is 5-foot-11, but Peralez and Turner are both undersized at 5-9. Lack of size is perhaps this team’s one shortcoming.

“We are really deep, which I love about this team, and we shoot it pretty well,” Hazeltine said. “But we are really small. We haven’t established a post presence, and if we have a glaring weakness it is defending inside. But we are going to get better.”

It is not lost on Hazeltine that her team begins the East Region season tonight against Spokane, which defeated the Warriors 76-73 in overtime in last year’s championship game.

“It is weird that we end the year with them and then start the year,” the coach said. “And Spokane looks good. Even though they lost Bri King, last year’s NWAC Player of the Year, they have just reloaded.

“But everybody’s solid,” she added. “The last two or three years this team might have coasted to the championship, but not this year. It’s going to be two months of stress.”

It will all be worth it, however, if the Warriors can successfully attend to some unfinished business.

“We finished with a bad taste in our mouths,” Hazeltine said. “To get to the title game is something everybody dreams of, but losing as close as we did, in overtime with a chance to win it, those are things you don’t forget.

“And we have five sophomores who want to get back there awfully bad.”

Union Bulletin

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