Pride of Brier helps lead WSU's overseas push

PULLMAN -- June Daugherty is borrowing a page from legendary former Washington State track and field coach John Chaplin in turning WSU's women's basketball program into the Northwest version of the United Nations. And one of the people leading the charge was so unworldly when she first hit the recruiting trail that she wasn't quite sure how to go about booking a rental car.

Ashley Gill -- better known as Ashley Grover before her recent marriage -- has since logged more than 130,000 air miles as part of the talent chase, many of them over the Pacific, since Daugherty promoted her from video coordinator to assistant coach three years ago.

Last year, the 27-year-old WSU and Mountlake Terrace High grad went back and forth between Pullman and Australia four times. And the results were impressive: Louise Brown and Krystle McKenzie, two Aussies who are true freshmen for the Cougars this season.

Brown had been logging notable minutes all season, but the 6-2 forward from Melbourne truly stepped into the spotlight when Shalie Dheensaw went down for the season with a knee injury a month ago. In the nine games since the loss of Dheensaw, Brown is averaging 31 minutes, 7.5 rebounds and 5 points per game.

On the international front, Gill covers Australia while Daugherty and associate coach Brian Holsinger handle Europe.

Between their efforts, they have turned WSU women's basketball into a global enterprise. Six of the 14 players on the roster are from foreign countries. And of the three players in the new recruiting class announced in November, two are from overseas: Borislava Hristova of Bulgaria and Maria Kostourkova of Portugal. The third, Alexys Swedlund, is from South Dakota.

ON HER FIRST-EVER RECRUITING TRIP by herself, Gill traveled all the way to ... Oregon. She laughs now about worrying at the time about finding a rental car and a hotel. Holsinger, she said, offered up sage advice: figure it out! She had just been promoted to assistant coach at the age of 23.

And figure it out she did.

"I think she lives on the plane more than she does in Pullman," Daugherty jokes.

Gill says she relies on persistence and being herself to gain trust with the players she recruits. She said there is also a strategy to choosing future Cougars.

"If you're out recruiting kids that don't want to be in a small town and want to be a big-city kid, you're recruiting the wrong kid. You have to recruit a certain type of person. Someone who wants to be part of a big family and love the small-town feel. That's the goal," Gill said.

Brown said she was initially taken aback by Gill.

"To be honest, she was really friendly, almost too friendly, which kind of threw me a little bit. I think that's what attached me to her in the end," said Brown. "She was such a sister with me, and she was honest, extremely honest. I think that's what I respected the most about her."

Gill took an interest in things outside of basketball as well, something that other schools weren't doing, Brown said.

"I think recruiting is very competitive, and I'm a competitive person. It's fun to put so much work into trying to get a certain kid because obviously you like them as a person," said Gill, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees at WSU. "You develop great relations with them beyond basketball. Finally, committing to the crimson and gray is where the passion comes from."

The recent history of Australians in WSU's men's basketball, with Aron Baynes, Brock Motum and Dexter Kernich-Drew, has allowed the program to develop connections in the country. And long-time former WSU men's assistant coach Ben Johnson -- the point man in recruiting those three -- is back in Australia coaching.

Those Cougar connections to Australia are invaluable, Gill said. So much so that prospects will actually contact Gill first, saying they know someone in the WSU program. It is as if they are recruiting us, Gill said.

Gill said one of her goals is to see WSU women's basketball become the prime destination for Australian talent the way St. Mary's men's program has been over the last decade.

Recruiting in Australia isn't necessarily easy, though. Gill explained a rule that prohibits coaches from watching players in games that are not affiliated with their high school. High school basketball is obsolete in Australia, Gill said, because most recruits play for their state teams. Therefore, coaches can only watch recruits when they play on the national stage. Gill received a a break in Brown's case because Brown played for the Australian Institute of Sport, too, which is considered a high school.

This season is Gill's seventh working for the WSU women's basketball team. She got her start as the team manager while working on her bachelor's degree in sports managements.

Daugherty calls the Brier, Wash., product a "tireless worker" with a "real passion" for what she does.

NOTABLE: The CouGals play two games this week -- both against the Huskies. On Friday, they'll tip at 7:30 p.m. in Seattle at Alaska Airlines Arena and then on Sunday the teams will square off at 1 p.m. on Friel Court. The eighth-place Cougars are 14-11/5-9 while the fifth-place Huskies 19-7/7-6.

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