Cougars Turning A Corner In Women's Basketball
By Brian Price
On January 30, Washington State women's basketball will visit in-state rival Washington in a match-up that could be a turning point for the final stretch of the regular season conference schedule.
The 2010-2011 campaign, at times, has been rough for the 5-15 Cougars, but head coach June Daugherty understands it's all part of the maturation process for a young team.
"We played one of the toughest preseason schedules in the country and we certainly took our hits," notes Daugherty. "But at the same time, we learned so much from playing great competition on the road in hostile environments."
The Cougars' youth was evident in the early stages of the season after getting off to an 0-5 start (four of which were on the road) that included losses at No. 15 North Carolina and at home to No. 21 Nebraska.
To date, the Cougars have played the eighth toughest schedule in the country according to Rpiratings.com, competing against teams with a combined record of 223-126.
The grueling schedule was daunting, but Daugherty was encouraged by what she saw in her players.
"They hung in there and kept their heads up during the losses, and took the lessons they learned and applied them in conference play," says Daugherty. "This is a young team that's willing to learn and willing to take on the toughest competition in order to gear up for the Pac-10, which is the toughest conference in the nation."
Having won three of their last five Pac-10 contests, star redshirt freshman Ireti Amojo's voice is confident and strong when discussing her Cougar teammates' progress. "We've turned a corner and we're looking to turn another one in the Apple Cup," says Amojo.
Six Cougars are newcomers to the program. Daugherty, encouraged by her youngest players, who make up more than half the scoring offense, has sought to create a family atmosphere for her players as they continue to grow as students and as athletes.
Along with her husband Mike Daugherty, who is also the associate head coach, she prides herself on always being accessible. "The door's always open. It's tough being a student athlete, so as they go through the maturation process we're always there for them. Once you're in the Dougherty family, you're in the family for life." She pauses and laughs. "You're stuck with us."
The opportunity to be there for her players everyday is something that Daugherty has come to appreciate even more after suffering from cardiac arrest during her first season with the Cougars.
"I was legally dead when my heart stopped. I remember waking up in the hospital eight days later with short term memory loss, and kept asking which player I was there to see," Daugherty explains. "My players know when I tell them to enjoy each day that it's advice that comes from a unique perspective and they can use that as a motivation."
From family values to survival skills to developing a winning program, these are all perspectives that a young player, like Amojo greatly appreciates.
"June talked [about] how she wanted to build the program and that she wanted people who were just as committed as she was," Amojo says. "I was, and I believed in her and wanted to become a part of it."
Amojo, originially from Berlin, has blossomed into the Cougars' leading scorer, averaging 12.1 points per game in conference play. She first came to the United States on an exchange program in high school that housed with her current teammate, roommate and best friend, redshirt sophomore Katie Grad.
"Katie and I joke all the time about how lucky I am," says Amojo. "I could have been partnered up with any host family and happened to be matched with the Grads, who became my family away from Germany and with Katie, who helped me discover my love for basketball."
Prior to her arrival, basketball played a limited role in Amojo's life. "I came to improve my English, have an experience abroad and branch out a little bit, but basketball became a huge part of my exchange here. I also learned how hard I'd have to work to be competitive."
Amojo proved to be a natural, and during her time in the U.S., she tried out for the girl's varsity team at Auburn Riverdale High School in Auburn, Wash. She made the team and, along with Grad, who was already a star, helped lead the Ravens to their first 3A state championship in 2007.
Now as a redshirt freshman at Washington State, Amojo has relished the opportunity to step up this year after missing last year due to a knee injury one game into the season.
"Sitting out last year was extremely tough, especially having to watch my team compete and lose a lot of tough games," she says. "So now I'm so excited to be able to contribute and help."
With 10 games remaining in the season, continued growth is anticipated. Juniors Jasmine Perkins and April Cook recently became members of the 900-point total club on their collegiate careers and will keep climbing the all-time scoring list. Away games against top flight conference opponents like No. 4 Stanford and No. 11 UCLA will offer opportunities for the Cougars to test their resolve and, regardless of wins and loses, the program will improve with experience.
"I'm excited about building a program here with a great staff," says Dougherty. "We're proud to be Cougars competing in the Pac-10, soon to be the Pac-12, and we're working with great kids everyday."