March 6, 2003
By Dustin Cu
The Santa Clara Writer
Over four years at Santa Clara, they have accumulated 80 wins, accounted for 2,692 points and 1,575 rebounds, survived season-killing injuries and three coaching changes, tasted both the agony and elation of Selection Sunday and savored one short-lived trip to the Big Dance.
The upcoming West Coast Conference Tournament in San Diego could be the last hurrah for Santa Clara's five seniors. Entering the weekend as the third seed, they sill have to win three games in three days to clinch an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. It seems a daunting task, but these five have climbed mountains before.
Kendra Rhea remembers how unprepared she was for her first fall conditioning session as a freshman.
"I had no idea what college athletics was like," she recalled.
Rhea, the team's resident workhorse, leads the Broncos in charges and is the only post player among the league's top 10 in assists.
Four years worth of practices will take a toll on your body, as Courtney Cushing can attest. Hampered by injuries, she has had to watch most of this season from the bench.
"We definitely have battle wounds," Cushing said.
Added Julie Butler, who has posted up and drop-stepped her way to the best field goal percentage in the WCC, "We definitely did things physically that we never believed we could do. In some ways I feel like I've had a first practice three different times."
Indeed, the seniors began their careers under Caren Horstmeyer, the winningest coach in the program's history. Chris Denker, an assistant, succeeded her in 2000, only to depart two years later and be replaced by Michelle Bento.
Four years - or in Tammy Annas's case, five years - will make you tougher. The final remnant of the 1999 NCAA Tournament team, Annas tore her ACL as a junior and spent a redshirt year on the sidelines.
"Tammy's always hard to guard in practice because she comes 100 percent every day," says Rhea.
Jennifer Bradley, the team's sparkplug off the bench, had to deal with similar frustrations, as injuries limited her to only seven games as a freshman.
"At the same time, it's kind of like a dream come true," she said. "You're a little girl growing up and you want to be able to play four years. Play on TV. Play in the tournament. We've been able to do that."
But these challenges have not hampered their success.
"We've had so many huge upsets over the past few years, teams we weren't supposed to beat," says Bradley. "I feel like our team is so tough in practice that when game time comes, nobody can really stand up to [us]."
Especially not on Feb. 22, Senior Night, when the seniors celebrated their last home game with a victory against Saint Mary's. Bradley got her first career start. Rhea had her name displayed across the torsos of four half-naked Ruff Riders. Butler got knocked to the floor on a rebound and performed a back roll that had the bench in hysterics.
"It doesn't hit you until you're sitting down and they're introducing you," said Assistant Coach Katie Cronin, herself a four-year starter at Colorado State. "All of a sudden you realize your four years are done."
But as a high school senior, Annas did not even think she would be playing college basketball. She had not played for a summer traveling team, was not highly recruited and did not sign with Santa Clara until getting a recommendation from the father of former all-WCC guard Becki Ashbaugh.
"Now I look back, and I'm thankful for everything I've received," Annas said. "I don't know if I would've gone to college if I didn't get this scholarship."
Butler, on the other hand, put a different spin on it.
"It was definitely one of my goals to play in college," she said. "Good way to get it paid for."
And the five seniors leave the antics to underclassmen.
"Kimmy [Butler] and Alex [Gientke] - every time they get into the car together, they like to sit in the back, and they don't shut up for the whole ride," said Cushing. "Most of us seniors are a little bit calmer than the underclassmen, so we just sit in the front and listen to them."
But they were not so calm last year, gathering around the TV at Denker's house on NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday. Each of them remembers waiting nervously as teams were announced, agonizing over commercial breaks and finally, when it was down to the very last bracket, the thrill of being selected the eleventh seed in the West Region.
And this time was no different.
"Everybody was just freaking out," she says. "The whole team - we all just jumped up and started screaming and yelling."
It was a particularly special moment for Bradley.
"Somebody told me, Jenn, we're going to Colorado," she said. "I had always dreamed of playing at Boulder, back at home in front of my family. I was crying. I was so excited."
Although the team lost in the first round to LSU, they did not mind the ESPN cameras following them around, a pleasant souvenir of stardom.
"There was food in all the locker rooms, press conferences, interviews before the game, open practices, open shootarounds," recalled Cushing. "We got treated like queens."
This year, Rhea and Butler have certainly been queens of the frontcourt, as the two have established a unique chemistry in the post.
"It's exciting when things finally come together, when you get enough playing time with a person," Rhea said.
Of course, these seniors have shared more than just playing time.
"People think that because you're constantly surrounded by a team, that you get sick of them," Bradley said. "But the truth is, they're your support. They're the people who are there for you the most. They're your best friends."
Cushing added, "It's a weird feeling of finality. As soon as [it's] over, we're gonna have to figure out what's going on in the real world, out of our bubble."
But there is still the matter at hand.
"I'm happy where we are, but I'd love to have a win in the [NCAA] Tournament," said Butler.