Former Oregon State women's basketball players critical of way coach LaVonda Wagner treated them

2010-05-08T22:45:00Z Former Oregon State women's basketball players critical of way coach LaVonda Wagner treated themBy Kevin Hampton, Gazette-Times reporter Corvallis Gazette Times

Tayler Champion made it to January before she decided to leave the Oregon State University women's basketball team.

Champion was in her freshman year and quickly found that playing basketball for the Beavers was a very different experience than she expected.

The big difference? She said the team's coach, LaVonda Wagner, did not treat the players appropriately.

"Basically we were called names," Champion said. "It was antagonizing stuff, basically going at us emotionally. She would go at us in practice until someone would break down and cry."

Champion is one of seven players - half of the team - who were on the roster at the start of the 2009-10 season who have left the program before their eligibility was up.

Despite the exodus, OSU Director of Athletics Bob De Carolis hasn't made any public comment on the program since a statement on April 21. This was De Carolis' statement then: "When students transfer out of programs, you are always concerned. Sometimes the concern is for the student and the challenges he or she is personally facing. Sometimes it's for the program itself. But as you can imagine, each student who is faced with this major decision to stay or transfer is feeling pressures from many areas. You can never make assumptions or jump to conclusions without further inspection.

"At the end of the year, all teams undergo a review and I want to assure you that we are in that process right now with regard to women's basketball. I do want to assure all fans, students, faculty, staff, boosters and friends that I am aware of your concerns and I am examining the status of the program and the welfare of our students."

Wagner has three years left on her contract, which is thought to be worth close to $1 million over the three years.

Despite a number of messages from the Gazette-Times, De Carolis has declined additional comment.

When contacted by the newspaper, Wagner said she could not comment at this time.

The players who remain on the team were unavailable for comment.

But Gazette-Times interviews with other players who have left the team suggest that Champion's experience with Wagner was not unique.

Two common themes emerged in those interviews: A pattern of what the players called verbal abuse and long practice times, including a series of practices over Christmas break that lasted for seven to eight hours daily.

Relentless and daily

Champion said the verbal attacks were relentless and a daily occurrence.

When January arrived, Champion decided that enough was enough. She made the decision to leave and was gone on Jan. 11. She will eligible to play for UC Irvine in December.

"I just wanted to be out of there. I wanted to get my release as fast as I could," Champion said. "When I told her we talked about 15 minutes. She had me give a basic (press release) quote to make it seem like we left with no anger toward each other. That was it. I got my release and left."

This is the quote Champion gave for the press release:

"I would like to thank Coach Wagner and Oregon State for the opportunity I was given here. At this time it's important for me to finish out my career closer to home at a place I can play right away. I wish the Oregon State women's basketball team continued success."

It's not necessarily unusual for players to leave a school before their eligibility runs out, but the number of players leaving from this year's roster (seven) is unusual. During Wagner's time at OSU, which started with the 2005-06 season, eight other players have left the women's team, for a total of 15.

The two biggest names to leave the team this season are Talisa Rhea and Kirsten Tilleman. Rhea, who led the Beavers in scoring as a junior this past season, decided to transfer to Seattle University. Rhea did not want to comment on the situation but did say that she made the decision to leave late in the season.

Tilleman, a sophomore who led OSU in rebounding, left the team and is finishing out the school year at OSU. She chose not to comment when contacted by the Gazette-Times.

Also leaving were Kassandra McCalister, Amaya Gastaminza, Eisha Sheppard and Kate Lanz.

Lanz was named the Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year following her junior and senior seasons, and was named 6A Player of the Year by The Oregonian as a senior at Central Catholic in 2008-09. She was considered to be a top recruit for the Beavers.

Lanz said she was no longer having a good time playing basketball at OSU. She wanted to stay in the Portland area and visited the University of Portland and Portland State before choosing to play at PSU.

"I want college to be a fun experience both socially and with basketball and it just wasn't happening for me at Oregon State," she said. "I want a positive environment and I want a good relationship with my coach both on and off the court."

Lanz said that Wagner was verbally abusive.

"She never hit anybody or anything but she would pull people around unnecessarily and a lot of times she would get in people's faces," Lanz said.

Long practices

Lanz said Wagner conducted daily double practices over Christmas break that went for a total of seven to eight hours a day.

She also said during the season the team's typical practice hours were from 8 to 11:30 a.m. or noon, depending on the day, with film sessions at 7:30 a.m. The players had to arrive at 6:30 a.m. to get taped. Then the team would have additional gym time from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

"It was pretty much an extra practice and on top of that we would also lift a couple times a week," Lanz said.

Lanz said on game days the team would have a shoot-around. She said most teams use that time to warm up for a game and get their shooting touch working, but Wagner conducted that time like a practice.

"If we were home the shoot-around would go for around two hours and was a typical practice setup," Lanz said. "If we were away it would go about an hour and a half."

According to NCAA bylaws, a student-athlete's participation in what are called "countable athletically related activities" is limited to four hours a day and 20 hours a week.

The bylaw states: "Countable athletically related activities include any required activity with an athletics purpose involving student-athletes and at the direction of, or supervised by one or more of an institution's coaching staff (including strength and conditioning coaches) and must be counted within the weekly and daily limitations under Bylaw 17.1.5.1 and 17.1.5.2. Administrative activities (e.g., academic meetings, compliance meetings) shall not be considered as countable athletically related activities."

It also states that "all competition and any associated athletically related activities on the day of competition shall count as three hours regardless of the actual duration of these activities."

NCAA director of communication strategy Chuck Wynne said in an e-mail a variety of variables can come into play.

"For example, exceptions are made for sports like golf where an individual round can take more than four hours," Wynne said. "Generally, the time limits do not apply during vacation periods and time between terms." So, for example, the time limits generally do not apply during Christmas break.

Brittany Eskridge left after the 2008-09 season and is now at Oral Roberts. Eskridge agreed that Wagner conducted excessively long practices during the season.

Eskridge said the players had to be up early and often lifted weights in the morning or after practice.

"Then we had practice and that lasted for a good amount of time," she said. "They had to have been sometimes over three hours."

She said players who had individual position work put in an extra 30 minutes to an hour.

Like Lanz, she talked about how the shoot-arounds were run like practices.

"It's different from other shoot-arounds I've been in," Eskridge said. "It was more like a practice. It wasn't as long as a regular practice."

A hard decision

The decision to leave the program was very hard for Eboni Sadler. Sadler had transferred to OSU from University of Miami, so she could not go to another Division I program due to NCAA transfer rules.

Nevertheless, Sadler made the move last May. She gave up on major college basketball and left for Azusa Pacific, an NAIA program.

She wanted it known that it wasn't a case of homesickness. "One thing I want to make clear is that I didn't decide to leave because I wanted to be closer to home," she said.

Sadler's reason for leaving was Wagner.

"(Wagner's) demeanor with the players was degrading," Sadler said. "She could have more compassion talking to us. I think she could have given us more respect as humans."

Sadler said their relationship started to sour when she reinjured her shoulder. She had torn the labrum in her right shoulder in 2007 and then tore it again in 2009.

She said Wagner acted as if the injury was all in Sadler's head.

"She kept saying it was a mental block, something I need to get over," Sadler said. "She said I'm going to set up a meeting with a therapist."

Sadler said she knew there was nothing wrong with her mentally but she went ahead and talked to the therapist, who said Sadler was fine and there was no real reason to meet.

Sadler's parents sensed that something wasn't right about the situation. They finally got their daughter to talk and they were incensed.

"I called LaVonda and I would not get a return phone call," Erica Sadler said. "I sent e-mails to the AD and Marianne Vydra," an assistant athletic director. "Nobody responded to anything I was saying."

They made the drive up to Oregon from Sacramento, Calif., to see Eboni.

Erica Sadler said that Wagner was not upfront with her about Eboni's situation with the team.

"When I got up to Oregon things were hidden from me," Erica Sadler said. "And everyone was scared to death of her. When she was around everyone would clam up. They wouldn't talk."

Finally they got some answers. An OSU trainer who had been working with Sadler pulled Erica aside.

"A trainer who is no longer there confided in me and told me to get my daughter out of there because LaVonda was trying to break her down," Erica Sadler said. "It was just the mind games that she did. It had nothing to do with basketball-related stuff. It was just mental abuse."

Erica Sadler said she was happy when Eboni decided to transfer to OSU from Miami because she could sleep better at night knowing her daughter was in a safe environment. She liked the university and the people, but Wagner was a different story.

"What (Wagner is) doing is not right," Erica Sadler said. "These young kids that are coming through, their parents have no idea what they're getting into with LaVonda. They should be worried. What they saw on visits is not what they're going to get once they're on campus."

 

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