By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — There were some who told Suzanna Ohlsen that she hadn’t made the smartest decision when she accepted a basketball scholarship from Seattle Pacific University two years ago.
It seemed the Ohlsen was too smart, not to mention too talented, to be playing NCAA Division II basketball.
Monroe High School’s valedictorian from the Class of 2011 had a 4.0 grade-point average, an SAT score of 2,140 that included a perfect 800 on the math section, acceptance to both Harvard and Princeton in the Ivy League and offers to play basketball at several Division I schools — Gonzaga among them.
And yet tiny SPU kept hounding her, so Ohlsen finally decided to take a look at the school 30 miles south.
“Honestly, I didn’t even want to go on the visit too much,” she said with a laugh. “I was like: ‘Oh, D-II, whatever.’ But I went on the visit, and I fell in love with it. Just the camaraderie on the team and the coaches — it was a fantastic program. I think it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
It’s worked out pretty well for the Falcons as well.
The sophomore point guard from Monroe has teamed with fellow Snohomish County product Katie Benson, a junior from Snohomish High School, to lead SPU to a 7-2 start. Ohlsen and Benson are the Falcons’ top two scorers, both are among the top 12 in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in points per game, and Ohlsen leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.56 (32 assists to just nine turnovers).
“Obviously, as a coach, those two create a great combo,” SPU coach Julie Heisey said. “It’s pretty hard to guard both Katie and Suzanna.”
Benson’s team-leading 14.3 points per game come as no surprise; she led the Falcons in scoring as a sophomore last season at 14.9 points per game. But with two senior points guards graduating, and four of last year’s top six scorers either out of eligibility or currently sidelined by injury, SPU was looking for Ohlsen to take on a bigger role during this, her sophomore, season.
“She’s becoming more and more comfortable with her role,” Heisey said. “She’s doing a lot more than scoring.”
Heisey first heard about Ohlsen when friend Dan Waldeck, the head coach at Master’s College, an NAIA school in Southern California, turned the SPU staff onto her during an AAU tournament in Oregon. Waldeck loved Ohlsen’s game but didn’t feel like he had a shot at signing her, so he encouraged the SPU coaches to take a look.
“That was July before her senior year” of high school, Heisey said. “That next year, we counted 17 or 18 Division I coaches watching Suzanna. But we knew SPU, in so many ways, was a special fit. Just being close to home and (Ohlsen being) a small-town kid and from a religious family and us being a Christian school. All that worked for us.”
It also worked for Ohlsen, who was considering Division I programs Gonzaga, Long Beach State and Seattle U. before settling on Seattle Pacific.
“Once I committed, I got a lot of flak from a lot of old coaches, from teammates and friends,” she said. “It was difficult at first. But I just realized I’m making the decision for myself. SPU was the best choice for me.”
Benson also turned down some Division I offers to stick to her SPU commitment — many of them came after she officially signed in November of her senior year then went on to have an outstanding senior season. Benson and older sister Sydney, a transfer from Eastern Washington University, each decided independently to go to SPU and arrived at the same time.
“I really felt like God was telling me to go to SPU,” said Katie Benson, who privately decided she would go there before Sydney transferred. “That was before I even stepped on campus. Then when I went there and saw the campus, I felt like: ‘OK, this is definitely where I want to be.’”
During the second practice of her freshman year, Katie Benson blew out her anterior cruciate ligament and was lost for the season.
“That was the only year I could have played with my sister,” she said last week. “I was like: ‘God, what are you doing? This is not how the storyline was supposed to go.’ But it’s amazing how much I changed as a person sitting out that year.”
As a junior, the 6-foot-1 Benson has not only continued to score (she ranks ninth in the GNAC in scoring) but she’s also worked hard to improve her rebounding (6.3 per game, 11th).
She also has a new point guard, and that relationship seems to be working out for the better.
“She’s probably the most talented player I’ve ever played with,” Benson said of the 5-7 Ohlsen. “She’s amazingly quick. It’s really fun to play with her. She’ll have the ball with a few seconds left on the shot clock, and you just know she’s going to take it in and score — and she always does.”
Benson and the Falcons are happy to have Ohlsen on board, and the former Monroe star and valedictorian is glad to be a part of the SPU program.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t trade this,” she said. “SPU has been everything I could have wanted.”