In 2010, Terri Ward "retired" from coaching the Niwot girls basketball program.
In the three seasons following her departure, the Cougars won seven games during the 2010-11 season and just three in each of the following two campaigns.
Then she came back.
In the three full seasons since Ward's return, the Cougars have won seven games, then 10 games, then 13 games. So far this year, they have 10 wins and sit on the bubble for a potential playoff appearance, even under a new RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) system that has treated them unfavorably.
My relationship with Ward consists mostly of showing up at the occasional game and delivering my usual opener, "So, your general thoughts on tonight's game?" But I always leave thinking about what's happening at Niwot, how things are changing. Then I get stuck on that look she always gives me, receiving my general questions as if to say, "Would you like me to explain basketball to you? Because if you ask the right question, I will."
The more I talked with Terri Ward, the more questions kept popping into my head.
Honestly, I just wanted to know what her secret was. I had to. I mean, come on. How can she coach one of Colorado's most struggling programs, lead the girls back to success, and always seems to do so with a serene fury that no one can explain?
I asked several coaches in the area, and they all said: "That's just Terri."
Not good enough.
So I cornered Ward after the Cougars' game against Centaurus on Monday night. In the span of just a 15-minute conversation, she answered questions before I asked them and left me thinking, "I should have done 20 questions, not just five."
Anyways, here are five questions that I managed to ask:
Question: Terri, this is shaping up to be another season in which your program has improved upon the previous year and it seems like things are going pretty well for you guys. Would you please just give me your general thoughts on how things have transpired thus far?
Ward: I don't think there are many teams that play as hard as we do. We're a team that doesn't stop playing no matter what the score is, whether we're up or down. We've had to come from behind a lot this season but these kids, they just don't stop playing from start to finish. This group is one of the hardest-working teams I've ever coached.
So this is the era of the RPI. Playing in the Northern League, a 10-win season would guarantee you a playoff berth in previous seasons. You have the wins you have and you've played the teams you've played, regardless of scheduling and what metrics are in place to weigh teams' playoff worthiness, what are your thoughts on a potential postseason appearance?
Look, if we get in, I really feel like whoever we play better watch out. I think we can beat some of the teams that are ranked higher in the RPI than we are. If somebody wants to go, "Whoo-hoo, we got 48," then go right ahead. Well, you got us. We just want to get in. If we do, we won't be easy to knock out.
This Niwot girls basketball program has seen some really hard times in recent years. It seems like things are beginning to turn around and I'm wondering if you sense that you guys have reached a tipping point, or a threshold, at which you are beginning to justify the expectation of a winning program?
I think so.
And I think we would be a winning program if we didn't have the injury bug. I've got three varsity players who are injured and haven't played since January 5th. We went from being nine deep to seven, or even six. As a coach, I try to get as much out of my team as I can. This group of girls works incredibly hard for me. I don't even use my timeouts for strategy. I use them for rest.
We get after it on the defensive end and we run. Just look at Zoe (Gonzales). You're not going to find a better post player that runs the floor like she does. Mary Gillett and Sophie Grant are two of the faster wings you're going to see. They're athletic as all get-out and they just find ways to get to the basket. So we've had to overcome that lack of depth but I think the girls have done a great job.
Coach, I feel bad for pressing the issue here and harping on the fact that the Niwot program really struggled for a while there. But what is the biggest difference between three wins and double digits? And more than that, what has changed in the locker room that has enabled you guys to raise your expectations?
To me, it seems like it's cool to play Niwot basketball again. It's OK to play basketball at Niwot again, versus before when it was like, "Oh God, you play basketball? At Niwot?" It's a good thing again. And the culture of winning is great, but I also think it's fun to play basketball at Niwot again. We're winning and we're teaching fundamentals and they're learning how to play the game, but it's fun to be at practice again.
You see it in things that I think are important, like the fact that the girls want to play hard for their seniors on senior night, even though we only have two. They want to play hard for them. They all like each other and they get along, and they want to work for each other. The big thing for me, though, is that it's fun to play again.
It's cold out here in the parking lot, Terri. I have no more questions and I want to let you go home ... But please, don't stop talking.
More than anything, these girls don't just like each other but they have a respect for each other.
In my opinion, I don't care if you're the last person we kept on the C-team or you're (starting point guard) YY Chen. We treat them the same as they come through the program. I mean, obviously you coach kids differently, but overall, we want to treat them all the same. The expectations are the same for that C-team kid as they are for YY Chen.
So if YY screws up, I'm gonna get on her. I have girls who I am on their butts constantly. But I also try to talk with them and say, "Hey, I'm on you big-time but if it's too much, you need to let me know." But when I do get on the girls, I'm looking to see how the other girls respond. That's the thing, they have to know that you have their backs, and really, that they're there for each other.
Just look at tonight's game. I met Allie Colvin nearly at midcourt and I was in her face all the way back to the bench. What I wanted to say was, "Look, I really need you on the court right now. I need you on the court, and I just need you to make better decisions with the ball. You need to decide." After I was finished, Mary Gillett and Sophie Grant, and everybody, they were right there to pick her up and say, "Let's go, come on Allie."
I'll yell and whatever, but we're all in this thing together. It's about building a relationship where they trust you and you trust them.