If you want a benchmark for how far the Oregon State women’s basketball program has come, from near oblivion to the Big Dance, there are almost too many from which to choose.
Maybe it was the exodus of 23 people — including 15 players and several assistant coaches and support staffers — from the disastrous reign of the previous coach, LaVonda Wagner. At the end of that fateful 2009-10 season, Wagner was fired not long after an article appeared in the Oregonian detailing the “culture of fear and intimidation” under her regime. Just four players were left on the roster.
Maybe it was the two scholarship athletes inherited off that 2-16 conference team by the new coach, Scott Rueck, who had the gumption to leave a highly successful Division III program at George Fox to tackle maybe the biggest challenge in all of the NCAA.
But I’d vote for the fact that the Oregon State situation seemed so dire that there was at least some contemplation in the highest circles about suspending the 2010-11 season in Corvallis. The fear was that the Beavers would be dangerously outmanned in the rugged Pac-10.
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“We were going to play,’’ Rueck insisted Saturday. “But I’ll be honest, there was a discussion. We had a discussion about whether or not we could. My concern in that discussion was just player safety. We had one center. And I had this vision of the Pac-10, at that time. I didn’t know. I came from D-3. I was worried for her. What do we do if she gets hurt? Where do we go? She’s going to be thrown to the wolves playing 40 minutes every night.
“Fortunately, we managed through it. We were recruiting post players that year, honestly, in December. We recruited through the season. If we saw someone tall on campus, we were working them out. It was really amazing.”
Looking back at those dark times seems almost surreal to Rueck, who has done a spectacular job of not just restoring order at his alma mater, but lifting them to heights almost unimaginable four years ago.
But it’s reality: On Sunday at 5 p.m., the Beavers will really, truly be playing in the NCAA tournament – their first appearance since 1996 – against Middle Tennessee State.
It’s the culmination of the mother of all rebuilding jobs, one that forced Rueck to hold open tryouts to fill out his squad that first year. A recent SI.com article noted that one of the attendees was a 47-year-old woman who felt that her rec league success qualified her for the Pac-12.
But the turnaround began when Rueck convinced four players who had been recruited by Wagner to honor their commitments. One of those was Alyssa Martin, who endured a 9-21 inaugural season under Rueck that actually vastly exceeded the predictions of utter disaster. The Beavers were competitive, which was an accomplishment in itself.
“My freshman year, just being close in all those games, I knew we were going to be good and we could go somewhere,’’ Martin said. “It was just getting over that hump of being close, and we’ve definitely done that.”
She stayed, Martin said, “because I’ve always loved Oregon State — the campus, the people. The fans are super-supportive. They’ve just grown with the success we’ve had. It’s been a really loving and welcoming community.
“I mean, that first year we had a team tryout, just to fill the roster. It’s just crazy and amazing where we’ve come. It’s great.”
After that first year, Rueck coaxed a strong recruiting class to Corvallis, and the Beavers went 20-13 with a WNIT appearance. They slumped to 10-21 last year, but an 11-game winning streak late this year, snapped by a loss to USC in the Pac-12 title game, catapulted the 23-10 Beavers into the tourney.
“It might seem quick,’’ Rueck said of OSU’s turnaround. “It doesn’t feel quick.”
Marianne Vydra, a senior associate athletic director at Oregon State, said the key to the resurgence has been Rueck’s ability as “a consummate teacher.” She called it “our brand at OSU.”
But the brand was tainted in women’s basketball when the administration mulled over whether to play in his first season.
“It was a discussion. I wouldn’t say it came close,’’ she said. “It’s our competitive nature. Of course we’re not going to do that. We’re going to dig in here, and go, and give a group of women an opportunity.
“Some women, to be honest with you, that were on the team at that time, they never would have gotten a Division I basketball experience. So they soaked it up for what it was worth, and we went on our merry way. It was kind of cool.”
And Oregon State’s way is getting merrier by the day.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146
On Twitter @StoneLarry