Oregon State’s rise from rags to riches in women’s college basketball has been well documented over the past few seasons.
And for good reason as coach Scott Rueck guided a program that nearly took a season off from playing games to a Final Four in just six years.
But it hasn't just been a flash in the pan.
Oregon State has now reached the Sweet 16 three straight seasons, and advanced to the Elite Eight for the second time in that span last season.
Rueck called last season special, in part because of the way the team had to grind throughout the season and played its best at the end of the year.
The Beavers handed Tennessee its first ever NCAA tournament home loss to reach the Sweet 16, then defeated Baylor to make the Elite Eight before falling one win shy of the Final Four with a loss to Louisville.
Last year's team had just three remaining members of the Final Four squad.
“I was so happy for a team that had to train up a point guard from Day 1, that had one senior, that had to learn how to win in three of the five positions on the floor,” Rueck said last week. “If you look at those standards it was very rewarding that they were able to put it together and figure it out.”
Was it a surprise?
Maybe for many, but not to Rueck.
“I think a lot of people who are watching our program closely, weren’t even surprised by last year,” he said. “We have done, I think, a good job of developing players and getting a lot out of our team.
“Everybody knows we’ve got this tight-knit culture, we’re built upon stingy defense and efficient offense. You look at the players in our program and not only are they talented, they’re very high-character people, and when you have reliable people like that, they’re going to achieve typically. So I think it you look at the whole puzzle, it makes sense that it came together.”
The culture and expectations that were set by the likes of Alyssa Martin, Ali Gibson, Jamie Weisner, Ruth Hamblin, Devin Hunter, Sydney Wiese and Gabby Hanson, among others, during those early years have continued with their successors.
Rueck and his staff have continued to bring in top-100 recruits who understand what is being built and want to be a part of the continued growth of the program.
“I think this team is so competitive that they chose us because of the culture,” Rueck said. “You think about everybody in our program chose us based upon what they observed through the recruiting process, so they came here expecting more of the same.
“Well if that’s what Sydney Wiese’s career was like, well I want the same. If that’s what Bre Brown’s career was, I want the same, all the way, Ruth, all the way down. It could go back to Alyssa Martin for Katie (McWilliams), well I want what Alyssa had. I want to get carried off the floor like Ali Gibson.”
McWilliams, now a senior, is the lone remaining player to have experienced a Final Four. She was a freshman on that team but has been ingrained in the program since Rueck took over for the 2010-11 season.
“She watched our program as an eighth-grader win nine games in Year 1,” Rueck said. “She has watched every moment of our time here or has been a part of it.
“So I know the leadership in our locker room has a comprehensive view of how hard it is, of how much we’ve had to grind. Everything that we’ve gone through, the highs and the lows. And that’s comforting. It matters a lot because she has a perspective that is in depth.”
This year’s team may have the most talent and depth of any that Rueck has had at Oregon State.
The Beavers lost leading scorer and rebounder Marie Gulich to graduation and Taylor Kalmer to a transfer. Enter point guard Destiny Slocum, who sat out last season after transferring from Maryland, and a freshman class that ranked 16th at the time of its signing.
Now comes the fun part of seeing how all those players fit together so the Beavers can once again become the best team they can and make as deep a run as possible in the NCAA tournament.
Rueck said he know what works and what he has to see if the Beavers are to be that team he thinks everyone wants to be.
There’s plenty out of his control, like who’s confident and who’s ready to step into bigger roles. But he can control making sure he is seeing what he needs to out of the players — effort, execution and eliminating mistakes as quickly as possible
“If you want it to be championship (level) you don’t even get five minutes off from that,” Rueck said. “That is a daily grind that is my responsibility to hold our entire program to. To me, that’s the fun of the whole thing is to see how much we can get out of each person in our program.”
While every team is different, this year’s squad has enough experience back that it should benefit from the experiences it had last season — including the feeling of walking off the floor a win shy of the Final Four.
“We learned how to win with that group,” Rueck said. “Now we get to do the same with this.”