Jan. 2, 2010
CORVALLIS, Ore. - It's not always easy to come back to a place you've known so long.
Huskies assistant Judy Spoelstra first experienced that challenge last year, when the Washington women's basketball team played at Gill Coliseum against Oregon State. For Spoelstra, who spent 10 years as the Beavers head coach, it was difficult to manage her emotions. Walking through the rooms and halls she knew inside and out, Spoelstra wasn't sure how to react.
"It's still difficult at times to be here and walk in the building," Spoelstra said.
What makes it hard is that Spoelstra didn't leave on her terms after the 2005 season. After all, this was a place she had known for much of her basketball career. The Everett, Wash., native was an All-American player with the Beavers, and then returned to coach after six years at Montana State. She's in the school's Hall of Fame. In a decade of coaching at OSU, Spoelstra achieved both tournament and regular-season success, which the conference recognized when they named her the 2000 Pac-10 Coach of the Year.
But this year it's different. Spoelstra jokingly mocked her mural hanging on the wall at Gill, saying she needed longer shorts than what was the trend in the early 1980s. She has some friends here in the Corvallis community she plans to see on Sunday when the Huskies (5-6, 0-1) meet the Beavers (9-2, 1-0) in a Pac-10 matchup.
As an assistant with the Huskies, Spoelstra is in charge of working with and developing the team's post players. This year, the team has demonstrated notable improvement in that area. One example is Mackenzie Argens, who has been playing her best basketball as a Husky. In 11 games this season, she's nearly doubled her scoring average (from 4.1 to 7.9) and rebounds per game (from 2.3 to 3.9). The sophomore has scored 36 points in the Huskies last two games, nearly a third of her overall point total from the entire 2008-09 season.
Another post, Mollie Williams, has also begun to hit her stride this year. Williams, an athletic 6-2 forward, always had the potential. But this year she's really developed under Spoelstra's tutelage, as she's shown more confidence looking for her shot and crashing the glass.
"She's very precise in how she demonstrates things," Williams said. "When she explains something, she'll go out and show you exactly how it should be done."
Despite her laid-back personality, Spoelstra is finite when it comes to her craft. Her people skills come from years and years of learning how to deal with various coaching situations, along with advice culled from her mentors. Talk with Washington players about "Coach Spo," and one of the first things they will mention is her ability to communicate with everybody. For her players, it's not uncommon to receive a late-night text message of support, which players say they find uplifting.
In Argens' case, the biggest hurdle was getting the 6-3 forward to not worry about making mistakes. Young players are often wary of the quick hook from coaches, but Spoelstra has ingrained in Argens' head that mistakes are fine - as long as they're made with effort.
"I tell her to just roll with it," Spoelstra said. "Keep playing hard. And that's the great thing about Mack is that she never gives up. Mack and Mollie both, when you have players like that, that always go hard, good things are going to happen."
Personally, Spoelstra is happy to be back in the Pacific Northwest, a place she grew up and spent most of her life. But where she felt reborn was the few years she spent in San Diego after Oregon State made the decision to change coaches. Spoelstra and her young son, Evan, enjoyed the warm weather, the outdoor activities and the numerous friends they made in the community. Slowly, she made a re-entry to basketball. She started as an assistant coach at local powerhouse La Jolla Country Day, which has produced a flotilla of Div. I players, such as ex-Stanford star Candace Wiggins.
In addition, Spoelstra also refereed games - which taught her a much-needed appreciation for how officials operate - and worked in private business.
She had opportunities to return to coaching, but she wanted to wait for the right opportunity. That came last year when Tia Jackson offered her the assistant's job at Washington.
"Being back in the Northwest was the key," Spoelstra said. "I had family in the area. I had an opportunity to get back in the Pac-10. It was truly a blessing."
It was a chance to come home.