Getting her shot, and taking it

  • By Larry Henry Special to The Herald
  • Sunday, January 27, 2008 10:47pm
  • SportsSports

BELLINGHAM — If only it were a nightmare.

Then she would wake up and it’d be over. But every morning when Carmen Dolfo opens her eyes, it’s still there. That’s the trouble with reality. It never goes away.

Reality for Dolfo, the women’s basketball coach at Western Washington University, is that she has never been through anything like this season in terms of injuries to her team.

Before the Vikings had played even one game, they lost a returning starter to a season-ending injury. Then, after three games, another veteran was sidelined for the year. In the first 2½ months of the season, five other players missed games due to injuries, one of which was a broken thumb by reserve sophomore center Tara Holgate. Holgate, who attended Snohomish County Christian, is out indefinitely. A few days later, a player who was injured earlier in the season but had returned to action, sprained an ankle. That left Dolfo with eight players, forcing her to activate the team’s manager.

Put all that together and it’s difficult to overcome, especially when the remaining players are underclassmen, four of whom — three pure freshmen and one redshirt freshman — had never played a college game before this year.

“It’s been tough,” Dolfo said. “The good thing is the younger players are getting better.”

Then she asked rhetorically, “What can you do? You just have to roll with it.”

Western teams rocked and rolled under Dolfo during her first 16 years as coach, posting a 347-122 record. This year the Vikings appear headed to only the second losing season during her reign.

It’s a team that’s experiencing significant growing pains. One characteristic of that: inconsistency. It’ll play well for a stretch, then “space out,” as Dolfo puts it. “A few things go wrong and we just kind of start panicking.”

A sign of a young team? “Yes,” she said, “it is.”

Amanda Dunbar is kind of a reflection of the team. “Amazing at times, then at times she loses her confidence,” the coach said. “Really up and down.”

Her “ups” can be explosive. In a game against Montana State Billings this month, Dunbar scored 12 of her 22 points in the final three minutes as the Vikings came back from a 14-point deficit only to lose by two.

Coming into the season, the redshirt freshman from Marysville-Pilchuck High School was expected to be the first player off the bench, but when injuries hit, she found herself in the starting lineup. She, too, was a victim of an injury that knocked her out of two early-season games.

“She’s had to step up,” Dolfo said. And step up she has, leading the team with an average of 14.1 points a game.

Freshmen are often shy about taking shots, but not this freshman. As Paul Madison, the veteran sports information director at Western, observed, “Amanda’s never seen a shot she didn’t like.”

She admits she’s still learning when to shoot and when not to shoot. “Sometimes I shoot when I’m open, and sometimes I shoot when I’m not open.”

A strong part of her game that Dolfo would like to see her exploit more often is her ability to take the ball to the basket. “She’s a really good driver,” Dolfo said. And often, when she drives, she gets fouled, which accounts for her leading the team in free throws made and attempted.

“When we’re trying to make a run, she gets to the foul line a lot,” Dolfo said. “That says a lot about her.”

For one thing, it says she’s bold. Because there are times when she gets roughed up on the way to the basket.

It also says she is unafraid to have the ball in her hands when the game is on the line. “She’s just got to recognize when she’s covered and when she’s not,” Dolfo said.

There are NBA players who still haven’t recognized that.

Dunbar will recognize it, however, because as her coach points out, “Amanda’s got a ton of potential and she wants to get better.”

Sometimes the growing pains can be rough emotionally.

After a home-court loss to Central Washington, Dolfo was exasperated about the listless way her team had played on defense. In her postgame remarks she challenged her players to give better effort. And if they weren’t interested in doing that, she said, then maybe they weren’t really interested in playing for the Vikings.

In a poignant moment outside the dressing room, the coach and and one of her players spoke quietly, the tearful Dunbar telling Dolfo that she wanted to be there for her team, that she wanted to play for the Vikings.

“She wants it,” Dolfo said.

The next morning, Sunday, a rest day for the team, Dunbar showed just how much she wants to improve. She was alone in the gym. “I came in and shot,” she said. “I was just eager. I just wanted to go again. I wanted to work on defense but I didn’t have anybody to work on it with.”

Julie Martin knows how badly Dunbar wants to reach her potential. Martin coached Dunbar in high school, first as a freshman and then three years at the varsity level.

“When I got to high school, Julie would tell me I had a lot of potential,” Dunbar said. “She really helped me develop my game. She did a lot for me.”

Martin told her that she could be a great player if she wanted to be. “A lot of players think practicing for two hours is going to do it and it’s not,” Martin said. “She put in a lot of time outside of practice. She had a lot of long talks with coach Julie Martin.”

The payoff — a college basketball scholarship. “I told Carmen about her when Amanda was a freshman,” said Martin, who had played for Dolfo at Western.

When Dunbar attended a summer camp at Western two years later, Martin said to Dolfo, “You’ve got to watch this girl.”

And game after game, Dunbar surged for 20-plus points.

Dolfo watched and signed her.

Now she predicts that with experience and more consistency, Dunbar will be “hard to stop.”

At times, she already is.

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