With a 30-2 men's team trying to defend its national title, and a 28-3 women's team also headed to the Elite Eight, Western Washington is enjoying remarkable basketball success.
BELLINGHAM — After the final practice at home, a photo shoot and a round of interviews, Carmen Dolfo hurried down the hall in the Western Washington athletics department and poked her head inside Tony Dominguez’s office.
“Good luck this week,” she said, her hoarse voice barely rising above a whisper.
“You, too,” Dominguez shot back. “Bring home that national title.”
The Vikings’ women’s and men’s basketball coaches travel to different parts of the country in pursuit of the same goal — an NCAA Division II championship.
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It’s the first time the school in the corner of the state has sent both teams to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in the same year.
While their mutual success is historic, it shouldn’t be all that shocking that everything has come together so perfectly for Western Washington’s basketball programs.
Not if you know anything about the allure of this place or the coaches who arrived here many years ago and never left.
Ninety miles north of Seattle, and just an hour from Vancouver, B.C., Western sits on the side of Sehome Hill, with panoramic views of the Puget Sound and San Juan Islands to the west and Mount Baker and the North Cascades to the east.
“It’s just a beautiful community,” said Dolfo, who transferred to Western in 1984 and played two years for the Vikings while earning NAIA All-America honors as a senior.
So nice that no one seems to want to leave.
Dolfo accepted an assistant-coaching job with the women’s team in 1986 and took over in 1990 when Lynda Goodrich became athletic director.
Over 22 seasons, Dolfo has compiled a 474-172 record, 31st among Division II coaches in wins. This season she guided the Vikings to a 28-3 campaign, a personal best.
Dominguez arrived 17 years ago as an unpaid volunteer assistant. He nearly left coaching before taking over at Western when longtime coach Brad Jackson left last year to become an assistant with the Washington Huskies.
In their first season with the new coach, the Vikings men (30-2) put together the best record in the 111-year history of the program and returned to the Elite Eight, trying to defend last year’s national championship.
“It’s fun to see both programs do it in the same year,” Dolfo said. “I think there’s a lot of camaraderie between both programs and care and wanting the other to do well. After all the work we’ve both put into this thing, it’s fun to see both of us here together.”
On to nationals
Their stories are still something of a mystery outside of Whatcom County, but that might change this week.
The Vikings women play Nova Southeastern (23-8) from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Bill Greehey Arena in San Antonio.
The men face Florida Southern (27-5) from Lakeland, Fla., at 3 p.m. Thursday at Louisville’s Freedom Hall.
The word special gets tossed around a lot at Western. That’s what WWU president Bruce Shepard said when describing the Vikings’ basketball teams.
“We don’t do everything,” he said. “But what we do, we do very, very well. And that applies to our athletics.”
Both basketball teams took similar steps as they marched into postseason. They posted 17-1 records to win the Great Northwest Athletic Conference regular-season titles, and advanced to the Elite Eight after wins last week in front of sold-out crowds at Carver Gym.
Both teams set season school records for wins, and their combined 58-5 record (92.5 percent) is on pace to break the mark for combined winning percentage that has stood for 41 years (90.0 in 1971-72).
Winning has brought the Vikings championships and records, but a pair of February defeats may have been the turning points to their seasons.
For the men, who returned three starters from a national championship team, everything came easy.
Western even looked good during a pair of exhibition defeats against Division I teams at the start of the season. The Vikings lost 88-78 at Washington and 105-87 against Duke at historic Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“Those games told us that we could play with anybody,” said senior guard John Allen, who averages a team-leading 17.3 points. “We should have beaten UW.”
When the games counted, Western began the season with 24 straight wins — 30 consecutive over two seasons. Both streaks broke 41-year-old school records.
With Allen, GNAC Player of the Year and third-team All-American, and senior forward Paul Jones leading the way, the Vikings dreamed of a perfect season until they lost 77-73 at Alaska Fairbanks.
“It was cold,” Dominguez said. “It was dark. We just weren’t on our game. I wondered how guys would respond to that. … After the game their fans treated it like they won the national championship.
“Seeing that reaction, I think, reignited our guys. We won the next game, which told me how mentally tough they are.”
Western rattled off three straight wins before losing again, a 72-70 defeat to rival Seattle Pacific in the GNAC championship game.
“We’re always talking about the next game and having a short memory,” said Jones, who averages 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds. “We couldn’t linger on that one because we had the (NCAA D-II) tournament coming up and if you lose there, you go home.”
Western rattled off three home wins, including a 62-58 victory over SPU that propelled the Vikings to the Elite Eight.
The Viking women’s wake-up call came Feb. 9 — a 71-54 thumping at Simon Fraser in Burnaby, B.C.
“It kind of slapped us in the face when we got beat so badly up there,” Dolfo said. “After that it felt like things started clicking.”
Senior guard Corinn Waltrip, a first team all-region and all-conference pick, is the 5-foot-6 playmaking guard who guides the offense and averages 12.2 points.
Britt Harris, a 6-2 senior center, is a third-team All-American who provides toughness and scoring inside. And 5-9 senior guard Trishi Williams takes care of the intangibles.
“What’s special about this team is that most of us have played together for a while and we all fight,” Harris said. “We’ll be down, but we never give up.
“Great teams have the ability, but special teams have the emotional connection — that fight.”
The Vikings are riding an 11-game winning streak with a 16.8 average margin of victory. Only one game has been decided by four points or less.
“It will be a bigger deal when it’s all over,” Waltrip said. “We’re so focused on the next step that’s is hard to reflect on what we’ve already accomplished.
“We’re going (to Texas) to win a national championship.”
Different place, but the men can say the same thing.
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or email@example.com.