Before they began their improbable Final Four run or even arrived at Washington, Kelsey Plum, Chantelle Osafor, Talia Walton and Katie Collier showed they were something special.

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The seeds of Washington’s miraculous run to the women’s Final Four were strewn at a midseason, high-school invitational tournament in Santa Ana, Calif., and I tripped over them some six years ago.

One of the matchups featured La Jolla Country Day, a school that once produced Candice Wiggins, who starred at Stanford and plays in the WNBA. Watching the Torreys gave me a chance to check out twins Malina and Maya Hood, as well as a young phenom, Briteesha Soloman.

As interesting as those players were, I was completely mesmerized by the point guard on team.

“While just a freshman,” I wrote for ESPN HoopGurlz, “(she) could be La Jolla Country Day’s foundation player.”

That player was Kelsey Plum.

“She has good size and skills through which to run an offense and, with length and fluidity, is no athletic slouch herself,” I wrote. “Her best move off the bounce is a nice, quick crossover, which can lead her to the rim, where she can be a creative finisher, or into a pull-up jumper. She has good body leverage, strength and form to be lethal from long distance. Plum also has a good sense of timing, as well as being in the right place, which portends well for her development at the point.”

This was the start of a long love affair between Plum and the staff of HoopGurlz, which I founded to cover girls basketball and women’s college prospects nationally.

We talked a lot about “It Factor” back in those days. It’s difficult to put into words, but easy to spot. Those who had It went further than even those with superior athleticism and skill. Plum had It.

She had presence for sure. But there was also her steely determination.

Katie Collier of Seattle Christian was named The Seattle Times Girls State Player of the Year in 2012 while undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. (Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times)
Katie Collier of Seattle Christian was named The Seattle Times Girls State Player of the Year in 2012 while undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. (Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times)

Because HoopGurlz was based in Seattle, we caught mega-doses of the kind of determination displayed by Katie Collier and broke the story of her leukemia diagnosis. We had confidence in the Seattle Christian star’s ability to battle cancer, so we never wavered in maintaining her ranking as one of the 2012 class’ top prospects. But no one could know that Collier would be further tested by a nearly catastrophic knee injury suffered just as her well-earned college career was about to start.

Collier’s status as the first McDonald’s All-American in Washington women’s basketball history opened the door for coach Mike Neighbors to sign other big-time recruits, such as Plum and freshman post Deja Strother, the program’s second McDonald’s honoree.

Talia Walton of Federal Way rises above an opposing player in the 2011 Class 3A state girls basketball tournament. (Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times)
Talia Walton of Federal Way rises above an opposing player in the 2011 Class 3A state girls basketball tournament. (Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times)

Talia Walton was another local kid we followed for years at Federal Way High School and
Buck Buchanon’s Baden Elite club teams. Walton required some out-of-the-box thinking because she was 6 feet 2 and tough enough to flourish inside, where the tendency may have been to want to keep her. But she insisted on maintaining a perimeter presence, developing fluidity, a smooth shooting stroke and good ball-handling skills that provide the kind of extreme versatility translating into matchup-bending combinations for her coaches.

We also watched Chantel Osahor dominate what usually passes for a high-school national championship game in Chandler, Ariz., during her junior year at St. Mary’s of Phoenix. She sank just one of her signature, flat-footed three-point shots, but it set the stage for her carving up Riverside Baptist of Upper Marlboro, Md., with her passing, defense, rebounding and basketball IQ.

“Osahor does so much for St. Mary’s,” I wrote after she led her school to victory, “there were times you’d head out to the … lobby and swear you’d find her hawking T-shirts.”

Chantel Osahor (No. 0) showed her out-of-the-box style while leading St. Mary’s High School of Phoenix to a mythical national high-school girls’ basketball championship at the 2011 Nike Tournament of Champions in Chandler, Ariz. (Glenn Nelson / Special to The Seattle Times)
Chantel Osahor (No. 0) showed her out-of-the-box style while leading St. Mary’s High School of Phoenix to a mythical national high-school girls’ basketball championship at the 2011 Nike Tournament of Champions in Chandler, Ariz. (Glenn Nelson / Special to The Seattle Times)

On the very same floor, Osahor’s future Washington teammate, Plum, led Country Day to victory earlier in the day in another national bracket of the Nike Tournament of Champions, the premier competition of its kind.

Osahor required high-level analysis as a prospect. To many, her girth suggested a future of poor conditioning and dexterity. But that ignored her ability to sustain effort and energy — that rare form of determination that permeates the core of this historic Washington team that charges forward with a short rotation.

But championships are not won on It Factor alone. They require a coach secure enough to offer the freedom so that non-conforming talent flourishes. Neighbors is further fortunate to have the kind of creativity off the dribble that Plum possesses to manufacture her own shots or plays for her teammates when everything else breaks down.

As much as the women’s game has progressed, her kind of one-on-one ability is in rare supply and a wild card for the Huskies.

I think Washington has an excellent shot in the national semifinal against Syracuse. If the Huskies get to the championship game, I wish them luck, as they likely will face a kid I have watched as closely. And with her ability to dominate either end of the floor in a variety of ways, Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart, the likely No. 1 overall pick by the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, didn’t just reset the bar for elite college prospects, she redefined it.

A Seattle native, Glenn Nelson was a sports reporter at The Seattle Times for 17 years. He co-founded Scout.com, started HoopGurlz and now is operating TrailPosse.com to encourage diversity and inclusion in the outdoors.

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