New Coach Brings New Attitude To Bearcat Women's Basketball

CONE FIELD HOUSE — For Willamette’s new head basketball coach Bruce Henderson, the slate is wiped clean. Gone are the past few seasons of suffering. In its place is a young and aggressive team — and a new coaching staff — ready to bring the Bearcats back.

Only five players return from last year’s squad as Henderson (pictured left) and assistant coaches Michelle Severson, Annie Lapray and Sarah Hedgepeth begin a new era. Henderson, hired last summer, is a former Bearcat assistant coach from the early 90s under both Gordie James and Paula Petrie, and a Willamette graduate.

With only four seniors and juniors — Jennifer Bell, Kari Woody, Laura Payne and Caitlin Andrus — Henderson knows his young team must grow up fast. They’ll start the season Friday night at the Bon Appetit Classic playing one of the top teams in the nation, Scranton College. Scranton is ranked No. 1 in the Mid-Atlantic region and most polls have them as a Top Five team.

“You want to play teams like this early in the season. If we play well, good things can happen. And it will give us a good indication of where we are. The games all count now,” said Henderson. “But the main thing is seeing how this team plays together when it counts. We’ve got a lot of new players and we need to develop a chemistry and identity before conference play starts.”

Leading the way for the Bearcats will be a starting five consisting of co-captain Tracie Nygaard (SO, Knappa OR), two-guard Laura Payne (SO, Issaquah, WA), point guard Sara Brooks (JR, Rainer OR), and a pair of freshman, Vic Sweigart (FR, Newport Beach, CA) and Brittany Farrer (FR, Medford, OR).

Brooks, a transfer from Chemeketa Community College, and Sweigart, who sat out last season due to injury, will team with Nygaard and Payne to give the Bearcats a different look.

“We’re going to play forty minutes of tenacious defense every night out,” vows Henderson. “We’re going to have to control the tempo of the game, run when we can and make sure we get good shots every time down the floor. If we are tenacious, we’ll be a much more competitive team this season.”

First off the bench will be two of Henderson’s veterans. Jennifer Bell SR, Salem, OR), who plays both wing positions, will be counted on for that all-important bench spark. A solid shooter and tough defender, she’ll be counted on for instant offense.

Caitlin Andrus (SR, Kelseyville, CA) returns for her second season as a Bearcat and will be Henderson’s first post player off the bench. She’s shown a solid rebounding ethic and a good shooting touch that elevated her into the top of the rotation.

Tisia Reynolds (FR, Eugene, OR), Kari Woody (JR, Boise, ID), and Maggie Wilkens (FR, Seattle WA) will also get plenty of minutes in early season action.

“We’ll play a mid-tempo game,” says Henderson. “We like to run when we have the opportunity, but we’re also comfortable in our half court offense. Our biggest change has come at the defensive end. We’ve spent a lot of time working on our defense and that will show.”

Henderson also has high praise for his assistant coaches Severson, Lapray and Hedgepeth.

“These are all former players of mine who understand what I want and how to get us there,” said Henderson. “They do an awful lot of coaching and have made a great impact on our early season progress.”

As for the season that begins this weekend, Henderson is realistic, but optimistic, too.

“I see no reason why we can’t be a .500 team this year and be challenging for the top three spots in the NWC in a very short time,” said Henderson. "The girls are working awfully hard, they’ve adapted well to the new system and we’re excited for the games to start counting.”

Bruce Henderson

Bruce Henderson