After building winning programs at NCAA Division II and III schools, the successful coach will take a turn in Division I, taking on a Redhawks team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2012-13.
Suzy Barcomb knows how to build a championship basketball program. She’s done it before. Twice, in fact.
Admittedly, her latest reclamation project is unlike anything she’s encountered during her 19-year coaching career.
This time, Barcomb is moving up in competition to the Division I ranks for the first time and attempting to resurrect a Seattle University women’s basketball team that’s fallen on hard times.
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Since former coach Joan Bonvicini guided the Redhawks to 20 wins in 2012-13 — her first year — they’ve steadily declined. SU was 16-16 in 2013-14 followed by 10-21 in 2014-15.
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Finally, Seattle U bottomed out to a 9-21 finish (3-11 in the Western Athletic Conference) last season, which preceded Bonvicini’s resignation.
“When they hired Joan Bonvicini (in 2012) I applied,” Barcomb said. “I wanted it. … What attracts me to Seattle University is the location. I love the Pacific Northwest. I love the academic environment here.
“When it came open again I thought, ‘Do I want to take another step in my career?’ And I do. And I was very fortunate to be offered the position.”
Returning to Seattle was a no-brainer for Barcomb, a former walk-on at Washington who played one season for the Huskies and graduated in 1986. She began her collegiate career as a two-sport star who played volleyball and basketball at Central Missouri State before transferring to UW.
Barcomb began her coaching career at NCAA Division III University of Puget Sound in 1998. In 12 years with the Loggers, she became the program’s winningest coach with 237 victories.
In 2010, she relocated just south of Oakland and took over a downtrodden Division II Cal State East Bay team that was 2-25 the previous season.
Six years later, Barcomb led the Pioneers to the greatest season in program history. Cal State East Bay (27-5) captured the school’s first conference championship and advanced to Division II NCAA tournament — the first appearance for any sport at the school.
“People get caught up in D-II, D-III and D-I labels,” Barcomb said. “I’m not saying one of my D-III teams could beat (Washington) of last year, but we’re committed to our process.”
Keys to success
Win a game ASAP: The Redhawks are carrying a 10-game losing streak into the 2016-17 season. They need a win just to break from the past and change the dialogue surrounding this team.
Play defense: Seattle University scored more than 56 points just once during its losing streak and will likely struggle again this season offensively. The Redhawks have to lean heavily on its defense while the new offense develops.
Embrace the new: Among the 15 players, six are seniors and three juniors. New coach Suzy Barcomb is installing a new system and admittedly, it’s going to take everyone a while to get adjusted.
Barcomb’s 332-167 career record says she has more than enough experience for the Seattle U job.
Still, you have to wonder if the 55-year-old self-described “grinder” can continue winning at the Division I level.
• The Redhawks play four nonconference games against teams that participated in the 2016 NCAA women’s basketball tournament. They start the season at home against Idaho in Friday’s opener at the Connolly Complex before traveling to San Francisco on Nov. 15.
• No. 17 Washington, another 2016 NCAA tournament participant, visits Connolly Center Nov. 26. SU makes a Dec. 18 trip to Colorado State — the defending Mountain West tournament champion and NCAA tourney team last season.
• If the Redhawks can survive the first half of their Western Atheltic Conference schedule, things get easier at the end. Five of their last seven games are at home. The WAC tournament begins March 8 in Las Vegas.
“I can view this two ways,” she said. “I could view this as ‘Wow, Suze, you bit off more than you can chew.’ Or I can view this as ‘Suzy, you’ve been successful two times before with this process that you put in place.’ Just sticking with the process is important.”
Over the course of a 25-minute interview, Barcomb made references to “the process” seven times, which is a program-building model that’s served her well at her previous stops.
Historically, her teams are defense-oriented and fundamentally sound. She prefers 4-5 players averaging 8-9 points rather than a superstar scoring 25.
Barcomb is ultracompetitive and hates losing, but she loves her players even more and won’t take shortcuts to success.
“I can’t become impatient,” she said. “That’s a difficult trait for me to push down. I want success. I don’t want success for me. I want success for this senior group.
“You’re talking about a senior-laden team — that hasn’t had a lot of success recently — and they’re almost being treated as freshmen because they don’t know anything that’s going on.”
Barcomb, who brought assistant Toni Thomas with her from Cal State East Bay, said one of her biggest offseason moves was hiring former Humboldt State head coach Joddie Gleason and husband Skip.
“I’ve surrounded myself with an amazing coaching staff,” Barcomb said. “I love my staff. We’re all on the same page. … We know what it takes, and we’re willing to put in the work.”
Barcomb inherited a veteran-laden team with six seniors. She signed five freshmen after taking the job in April, and admittedly, there’s a steep learning curve for everybody.
Seattle U was picked to finish seventh in the Western Athletic Conference preseason coaches poll, which is reflective of a team that lost its top two leading scorers.
The Redhawks will rely heavily on senior point guard Kaylee Best, who was third last season with a 9.6 scoring average.
“Once she understands and learns our system more she should average 10 points, 10 rebounds and four assists,” Barcomb said.
Senior Wilma Afunugo has distinguished herself early as a low-post scoring option, but Barcomb is still ”struggling to find knockdown shooters from the outside.”
During a 53-45 loss to Division II Seattle Pacific in its exhibition opener, the Redhawks were 4 of 22 on three-pointers.
In its final tuneup, Seattle U dumped D-III Evergreen State 75-46. The season officially starts at 5 p.m. Friday against Idaho at the Connolly Complex.
“We’re in a process phase,” Barcomb said. “Everybody on the outside looking in is going to evaluate us on wins and losses … but it’s not going to be about that for us.
“It’s about what product are we putting on the floor and how much better are we playing. Are we getting better individually and is that leading to us getting better as a team?”