Jon Newlee was named head women's basketball coach at Idaho April 15, 2008. He came in from Idaho State with a tremendous record, including three trips to the WNIT in six seasons and a berth in the NCAA tournament to boot. When he arrived on campus, he found a team that had gone 11-37 in conference play and 20-66 overall in the previous three seasons. The leading scorer had left at the conclusion of the previous season, and there were a handful of players returning.
In essence Newlee and assistants Gavin Peterson, Christa Sanford and Karen Ada Piers set sail at the University of Idaho with four returning players: a 5-3 junior in Char Otero and three sophomores: 6-0 Yinka Olorunnife, 5-11 Rachele Kloke and 5-6 Alana Curtis. Newlee was able to bring in a JC transfer, 5-9 Derisa Taleni; and a freshman Shaena-Lyn Kuehu, a 5-9 guard, but the simple fact of the matter was that the Vandals were sorely lacking in depth.
Case in point, they brought in two goalies from the Vandal soccer team to be able to field enough players to scrimmage at practice.
|Coach Jon Newlee|
Newlee and his staff pulled off the amazing turnaround (the 2007-08 Vandals finished 2-25 on the year and 3-13 in conference play) with an even temperament and a lot of homework, watching videos and preparing scouting reports and effective game plans on Vandal opponents.
But the growing was not without pain. The Vandals seemed to be heading in the right direction until they reverted to old habits in Memorial Gym on November 18 in a lopsided loss against Montana. Newlee was far from pleased with the effort in that game, but the Vandals rebounded with a narrow defeat against Colorado State in their next game and handed Eastern Washington a 10-point loss in their next game at home.
Newlee makes no bones about the fact he prefers to coach his teams to play up-tempo basketball for a full 40 minutes, but a lack of depth and recruiting time made those plans unobtainable. One player fell by the wayside a few days before the opening of the season with an injury, and the Vandals were looking at having six players to call on for a 28-game season. In fact, in the final accounting one player (Otero) averaged 40.6 minutes played per game (there had to be an OT or three thrown in there).
The Vandals were undersized with Yinka Olorunnife the tallest player at a listed 6-0. But through excellent coaching and amazing instincts for a loose basketball, Olorunnife rewrote the Vandal record book, becoming the all-time single-season leader in rebounds at Idaho.
Newlee's players, though short-handed on the bench, relished playing in the more wide-open style his coaching staff brought to the game. The Vandals conquered a number of "dragons" on the season, save one: They still have not been able to defeat Louisiana Tech. The Lady Techsters, like a couple of other teams in the WAC (Nevada and Utah State) are blessed with abundant height and a tough physical presence the Vandals simply could not match this season.
Still, Idaho went into the WAC tournament as the #4 seed and fell in overtime by a single point to Utah State when a well-conceived last-second play fell apart as an Idaho player was tripped up in the key. Utah State wound up with the win, only to fall to Nevada in overtime in the semifinals. Carrying things one step further Nevada lost to Fresno State in the finals, probably a bitter pill for the Vandals to swallow.
Still, when it came time to hold "Senior Night" at the Cowan Spectrum the Vandals had to beg off. There were no seniors in the program. Otero will be a senior next year. Olorunnife, Alana Curtis and Rachele Kloke will be juniors. Newlee and his staff have two or three players on the redshirt bench who will play next year, and they have already signed new players who will arrive next fall. The opening of the spring signing period is April 15 with possibly more pleasant surprises in the offing.
In the meantime, the Vandals proved that they have the ability and stamina to compete in the WAC. Newlee was named conference Coach of the Year, guiding the Vandals to a tie for third in the standings after having been picked to finish ninth in the pre-season coaches poll and eighth in the media poll. Taleni, a junior guard from Santa Clara by way of DeAnza College in Cupertino CA, was named WAC Newcomer of the Year. Her 31 points against Utah State was the conference's best this season and she scored in double figures in 20 of Idaho's 27 games. Olorunnife, after earning a spot on last year's all-freshman team, averaged a double-double in WAC play and was named Second Team All-WAC and to the first team all-WAC defensive team. Her most outstanding achievement this season was collecting 310 rebounds. That mark gives her the UI single-season record, eclipsing the old record of 277 set by Vandal Hall of Famer Denise Brose in 1990-91.
WAC Newcomer of the Year
Placing Olorunnife and Taleni on the All-Conference teams extends a remarkable Vandal streak of 13 consecutive years with an all-conference player since 1`996-97. Since Idaho moved up to NCAA Division I, Idaho has had an all-conference player in 26 of 27 seasons.