In the fall of 2009, Britt Harris of Marysville was a freshman at Western Washington University. A standout basketball player and recent graduate of Marysville-Pilchuck High School, she was eager and confident to begin her college career.
Or as she puts it, “I was a cocky little freshman. I thought I was going to come in and be this freshman superstar.”
Minutes into her first practice, she learned otherwise.
Playing in the low post, Harris had the ball stolen by a senior named Jessica Summers, who then delivered an elbow to the face. Harris dropped to the floor, bleeding.
Jennifer Childress, a Vikings assistant coach, wandered over to check. Having determined that Harris’ injuries were not life threatening, Childress offered these words of solace before walking away: “Welcome to college.”
It was, for Harris, a moment of tough love. Because ultimately a bruised face and a few drops of blood were a small price to pay for an education in the finer points — and the elbow points — of college basketball.
Recalling those punishing freshman-year practices, “I can thank (Summers) for it today,” Harris said. “Even though my face took a few beatings, she really helped me develop as a player and a person. I feel I can play with just about anybody because of her.”
At the midpoint of her senior season, Harris has indeed proven she can play with anybody. Through 13 games, the 6-foot-2 center leads the Vikings in scoring at 14.6 points per game, is second in rebounds at 5.5, and is first in field-goal percentage among the regular players at 55 percent.
And in a Saturday night showdown of nationally ranked teams, Harris dropped in two field goals in the final 13 seconds — including the game-winner at the buzzer — as 11th-ranked Western Washington defeated No. 7 Simon Fraser 59-57 to grab sole possession of first place in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC).
With Saturday’s win, the Vikings improved their league record to 5-0 and their season mark to 11-2. Undefeated except for back-to-back losses at an early December tournament in California, Western Washington has since won five in a row.
According to longtime Vikings coach Carmen Dolfo, a big reason for the team’s success has been Harris. After playing sparingly behind Summers and other veterans in her first two seasons, Harris cracked the starting lineup a year ago “and she really stepped up, especially at the end of the season,” Dolfo said.
“(This season) she’s probably been our most consistent player. She’s got good post moves, good hands and a variety of moves that are hard to stop. And I think she’s really confident right now … She’s been playing great.”
Perhaps Harris’ biggest flaw is unselfishness. She has a pass-first mindset, “and sometimes we have to yell at her to take her shot,” Dolfo said.
Guilty as charged, Harris confessed.
“I don’t have what my dad calls a ‘scorer’s mentality,’ so my first thought is not to shoot,” she explained. “I’m always looking for teammates that are open. My coach says I pass too much and she gets mad at me for that.”
Western Washington will wrap up its regular season and the GNAC tournament in early March, and then likely head to the postseason for the 21st time in Dolfo’s 22-year head coaching career. But at that point the competition becomes fierce. Only once since moving from NAIA to NCAA Division II in 1998-99 have the Vikings advanced past the regional tournament to reach the national Elite Eight.
Harris, though, is optimistic.
“I think we can go really far this season,” she said. “We call it ‘GNAC and beyond.’ Honestly, the sky’s the limit for this team. We’re not playing to our full potential yet, but once we get there … there’s no real limit.
“Everyone on this team is so close,” she added. “We’re all great friends on and off the court, and that translates to great chemistry on the court.”
A year after the Western Washington men’s team won an NCAA Division II national championship, the women’s team has taken aim at a similar title.
What the WWU men’s team did a year ago “showed us that if we work hard, it’s attainable,” Harris said. “We see them at practice every day and we say, ‘They did it, now let’s get ours.’
“We want our ring, too,” she said. “So it’s a real motivational thing for us, and it shows us there is the possibility to do great things.”