The challenge is immense. Washington State has not had a winning conference record since the 1990-91 season, and just two winning seasons in the past 22 seasons
PULLMAN — Why is Kamie Ethridge in Pullman, trying to build a successful Washington State women’s basketball program, something no one else has been able to do?
It’s because her boss sold her on the job.
“I tell people all the time, nothing was really attractive (about the WSU job), until I met (athletic director) Pat Chun,” said Ethridge, 54, who won a national title with Texas as a player and a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics. “You want your boss to believe in you, you want your boss to invest in your program, you want your boss to say the words, ‘Whatever you need, we’re going to provide for you to be successful.’ And in women’s basketball, if you get that kind of boss, and then when he says, ‘My boss, (WSU president) Kirk Schulz is for you, and we’re going to this done,’ you jump at the opportunity.”
So Ethridge is in Pullman, in what she said “is a perfect spot.”
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The challenge is immense. Washington State has not had a winning conference record since the 1990-91 season, and just two winning seasons in the past 22 seasons. The Cougars were twice 17-15 under June Daugherty, who was let go after last season, her 10th as WSU’s coach.
But their new coach is used to winning. As a senior point guard at Texas, she led the Longhorns to a 34-0 record and the national title, the first NCAA Division I women’s team to finish a season undefeated. Ethridge, 5 feet 5, was named the national player of the year and then led the U.S. team to Olympic gold two years later.
She began working as an assistant basketball coach in 1987 and began working her way up the college ranks before landing the job as an assistant at Kansas State under coach Deb Patterson in 1996 and soon become the associate head coach. Ethridge stayed for 18 years.
“I know it was not the smartest thing ambition-wise, and you should be looking (for jobs) sometimes with your resume ready and sending it out … but I was so invested, and I got to do everything,” she said. “I had a lot of ownership in it, but I stayed too long. Then, when I really wanted to leave in the later years, my name wasn’t as hot.”
When Patterson was let go at Kansas State after the 2014 season, Ethridge realized if she wanted to become a head coach at a major program, she would first need to become a coach at a mid-major. She got that chance at Northern Colorado, leading the Bears to an 83-44 record in four seasons.
The Bears were 26-7 last season and earned their first trip to the NCAA tournament. The time was right for Ethridge to move to a Power 5 conference.
“I don’t have any regrets,” she said. “There is something to be said about loyalty. I am little old-school like that. I feel like I am in the place I am supposed to be. I feel like I had a great career as an assistant coach, and I think it’s made me a good head coach for assistants. I am here, and I think I am in the perfect spot.”
She inherited a team coming off a very disappointing 10-20 season when much bigger things were expected. But Daugherty missed part of the season with health issues, and there were issues among players.
Those issues, however, appear to be in the past, and there is talent for Ethridge to work with as the top three scorers from last season are back, including 6-foot junior Borislava Hristova, the team’s leading scorer last season at 17.8 points per game.
“She is as talented as anyone in the country,” Ethridge said.
Also back are senior guard Alexys Swedlund, who averaged 9.9 points last season and junior point guard Chanelle Molina, who averaged 7.7 points and a team-best 2.9 assists.
“I am really impressed with the seven players who stayed,” Ethridge said. “The fact that they probably had a lot of colleges trying to get them to leave this place and go somewhere else – and they watched (five) teammates do that – and the fact that they stayed shows a lot about their character.”
On Ethridge’s flight to her introductory news conference as WSU’s coach, she got an email from Hristova, signed by the entire team.
“In it, they said, ‘I know you didn’t choose us, and we probably didn’t choose you, but I want you to know we are all here, anxious to get started – we believe in this place, we believe in you and we’re committed to making this thing work,’ ” Ethridge said. “I thought it was the most unbelievable thing that this group of seven wrote that letter. That tells you a lot about them.”
The biggest issues facing WSU appear to be depth and on the inside, where there is not a lot of height other than returning starter Maria Kostourkova, a 6-4 senior center.
“We don’t have all the pieces and we don’t have a lot of depth – injuries could severely hurt us – but it’s a great group to work with,” Ethridge said. “They are committed, they are invested and they are willing to work hard to succeed.”
Ethridge wants the Cougars to play an up-tempo style and shoot a lot of three-pointers. She said the team will be competitive, but isn’t setting any particular number goals.
“We can’t always control if the ball goes in the basket, we can’t always control if we’re better than maybe a top-five Oregon or a top-two Stanford, but what we can control is we walked in and we played our guts out. We played as hard as we could and we got better,” she said.
“Eventually, I don’t know if it happens this year, or next year, or two years down the road, but we are going to get the wins. I think it could happen (this year). This team is talented enough to win some games, but the ultimate goal is to build this the right way.”
Ethridge is convinced that will happen.
“I don’t have any doubts we can be successful here,” she said.