MOSES LAKE — They don’t travel in the Grateful Dead tour bus. In fact, they don’t even travel in a tour bus at all.
They all pile into an oversized van – a weenie wagon – or some ride in the coach’s car. Any chance of sleep on the three-hour ride to Pendleton, Ore., is contingent on the idea they can fall asleep to the rhythm of the road. There’s no learning to study in the airport between flights. No massive crowds chanting their name or fans waving hundreds of those blow-up, noise-maker tubes you see at the NCAA games.
There’s just the weenie wagon, the rhythm of road and a heart that beats as one.
For the Big Bend Community College women’s basketball team, that’s enough. They rise and fall as one and even though 12 young women and three coaches don’t see their college careers based on wins and losses, the rest of the world does.
Legendary NCAA women’s coach Kelly Graves (1989-92) came through Big Bend on his way to the University of Oregon. Chris Carlson (1992-2000) went on to become NJCAA National Coach of the Year after leading the Lady Vikings to the program’s first NWAC East conference championship.
It’s been a long time comin’, countless hours in the gym, and dedication above and beyond, but the Lady Vikings are going back to The Dance for the first time since 2003. It’s been 15 years since the Big Bend women’s basketball team has danced with the stars at the NWAC basketball championships. They’re going to lace ‘em up and see if they can’t bring the big ball home to DeVries Activities Center.
“This is why I came to Big Bend, to do everything in my power to help the team get back to the NWAC,” said freshman Leah Dougherty from Rexburg, Idaho.
Graves took the 1992 team to the NWAC tournament where they finished fourth. Carlson took them back in 1992 where they finished fourth. The break through came in 2002 when Eric Spencer (2000-03) led Big Bend to the NWAC championship, finishing 24-7. The Lady Vikes (28-3) returned the following year (2003) where they finished second.
They haven’t been back since.
“I’m so stoked,” said sophomore Hailey Garrity with a smile that said ‘got my dancin’ shoes on and ready to go.’
For sophomores Sunnie Martinez, Emily Allan, Callie Gronning, Kelsey Foster and Garrity, the chance to go out on the big stage makes all the long bus rides into the night, the hours in the gym, the playing catch-up in the classroom all worthwhile.
They’ve been changing the culture of the program a little bit, coming off a 12-17 season the year before where they won just four conference games.
“I wanted to stay here and help turn things around. Honestly, we owe it to our coach (Preston Wilks). He’s really done a nice job this year helping us out and keeping us focused.”
Wilks became the winningest coach in Big Bend women’s basketball history when he surpassed Carlson during the 2015-2016 season. The long-time Big Bend coach took over the women’s program in 2007 and will finally get to put on his dancin’ shoes and coach at the NWAC basketball championships March 8-11 and 17-18 at Everett Community College.
“The most important thing in my mind is that these girls get to go to the tournament,” Wilks said. “They’re the ones that have sacrificed and put in the time. They’re the ones that believed all year long. It means the world to me.”
“Me getting to go is just icing on the cake. They’ve done all the work and I’m just along for the ride.”
It’s been a wild ride to this point and it’s not over yet.
Rodney Harwood is a sports writer for the Columbia Basin Herald and can be reached at email@example.com.