Gearlds, Lawless lead Purdue into 2006-07

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Katie Gearlds wants to coach someday. Erin Lawless hopes to be putting crooks in jail. This, of course, is after they finish their senior season at Purdue and play pro basketball.

Gearlds is the country girl, earnest and sincere in everything she says and does. Proud to admit to being the exact, corny stereotype of "small-town Midwesterner:" loyal, humble, hard-working.

Gearlds is from a town called Beech Grove -- in the greater Indianapolis area-- and her favorite movie is … OK, you have only one guess and you can't possibly miss -- she's one of four children, knows how to sew, would play any position her coach told her to fill, loves the Pacers and Colts, tortures herself with allegiance to the Cubs, started playing basketball in kindergarten and … if you didn't immediately guess "Hoosiers" as the movie, you should be demoted to kindergarten.

"I love everything about the state of Indiana," Gearlds said. "I think that's 'me.' "

Lawless is from the Chicago 'burbs, faithful follower of Da Bears, fan of R&B, rap and hip-hop. Even after living three years in Boilerland, she still sometimes feels as if things are moving in slow-motion out here compared to the city.

She got interested in the police forensics back when the "CSI" shows started; it seemed a natural extension of her aptitude in science. She did an internship with a sheriff's office in Illinois in the summer of 2005. Then this summer, she did her own forensic project on fingerprint methods.

Some people get turned off when they find out first-hand that gathering and examining evidence is really a time-consuming and often tedious process. (Not to mention the fact that, actually, crime labs aren't all that likely to be filled with people who look like Emily Procter or Adam Rodriguez.)

But Lawless became all the more intrigued when she got the realistic view. Though she still likes the "CSI" shows -- contrived and fantasy-based as they are.

"Sometimes, I'll be watching and say, 'You know, that's just not possible at all,' " Lawless said, laughing.

In terms of personality, they're distinctly different: Gearlds is kind of like a meandering gravel road, Lawless an eight-lane highway. And yet …

"I would do anything for her," Lawless said. "I've got her back, and I know she's got mine."

Which is a lucky for Purdue, because once again the program -- which went 26-7 last season and reached the Sweet 16 for the 10th time -- is relying on kids adjusting well to change and rolling with the punches, as it were.

Popular coach Kristy Curry left last spring after seven seasons to take over at Texas Tech. On top of that, Purdue reported six violations to the NCAA. Guard Cherelle George was removed from the team because of alleged academic misconduct. It also became quite public that two of the assistant coaches for Curry, Katrina Merriweather and Jannon Roland Lampley, apparently couldn't stand each other.

New coach Sharon Versyp, a former Boilermaker player, was hired. The Purdue players had to deal with missing the whole Curry family -- husband Kelly was a Boiler assistant, daughters Kelsey and Kendall were always around the team -- plus get used to the more subdued personality of Versyp.

Frankly, most of this was on the shoulders of the two captains, and they understood that.

"Katie and I were going to be the seniors, and we had no choice, really, but to step up and accept it," Lawless said. "Once we did that, it would trickle down to the rest of the team. We talked, and we knew we had to stick together."

The program had been through things like this before, of course. Lin Dunn was pushed out in 1996 after nine seasons and a 206-68 record. Nell Fortner came in for a year, then took over the U.S. national team. Carolyn Peck's two seasons included a national championship. Then she left for the WNBA. Currently, Fortner (Auburn) and Peck (Florida) are coaching in the SEC. Curry began her tenure in 1999-2000, and her second season included an appearance in the NCAA title game.

I can't think of any other program in the country quite like Purdue. The Boilermakers are on their fifth coach in the last decade, yet during that time they've always made the NCAA Tournament. There seems to be two views about Purdue's perpetual success. Some suggest that the athletic department really supports women's hoops, and that's what has remained consistent despite coaching changes. Others laugh out loud at that theory and say the program has done what it has almost in spite of the Purdue brass.

Whatever the case, the bottom line is that Purdue has won a ton of games. The last time the Boilermakers had a losing record was in 1985 -- when Versyp was a freshman.

Versyp mentioned something I had not previously thought about, although perhaps many Purdue fans have. Going back to Dunn, Purdue's head coaches had been from the South. But Versyp is a native of Indiana; her hometown is Mishawaka.

For her, this could well be a last-stop job. While that might seem obvious, in fact she didn't necessarily envision any of this.

After five seasons as head coach at Maine, Versyp got her Big Ten opportunity at, of all places, Indiana. She was there last season, then Curry left. What were the odds? The only job Versyp would have even considered leaving Indiana for after one year was, of course, Purdue.

"It was the most unforeseen thing anyone could imagine," Versyp said of the timing. "I'm a very loyal human being and very committed …"

But it was her alma mater. And she had strong feelings for the program, despite the fact that her playing days at Purdue were not idyllic. The coach who recruited her, Ruth Jones, died of cancer the summer after Versyp's sophomore year.

Versyp recalled her last meeting with Jones -- although she didn't know then that it would be the last -- as one of those times when tragedy sits quietly alongside everyday pragmatism. The coach told her player to work hard at getting better at basketball that summer, while the coach would just try to stay alive.

Marsha Reall came in for 1986-87 but wasn't a good fit, Versyp said. She then played for Dunn her senior year. Versyp has pointed out all this to her current Boilermakers.

"When she says she understands where we're coming from," Lawless said, "well, she went through three coaching changes herself. So she really, truly does understand."

Ohio State is considered the Big Ten favorite by most people, which makes sense. But once again, Purdue is projected to be near the top.

The Boilermakers have worries about a lack of bodies (although they won the 1999 NCAA title despite not having much depth). Junior forward Natasha Bogdanova injured her ACL this summer but still has hopes of playing this season.

No matter what happens, though, most of the load will be on Gearlds, Lawless and junior Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton. Gearlds will need to play point guard a lot as younger players develop -- and also just because Versyp is going to want the ball in Gearlds' hands as much as possible, especially at crunch time in games.

Gearlds pumps up Wisdom-Hylton as a potential All-American. Wisdom-Hylton barely can stand such praise, although she is gradually coming to grips with how talented she is.

"I want to be out there as much as possible," Wisdom-Hylton said. "I know these next two years, I need to be prepared to be in the whole game."

Ultimately, the Boilermakers are all optimistic, ready to show how a good a team they can be even if they're short on numbers. Sure, Gearlds and Lawless acknowledge they never expected their senior season to take this turn. They figured they'd be saying goodbye to Curry when they left, not when she did. But this is how it is.

"At first, it was a whirlwind of emotions," Gearlds said. "Coach Curry and I were extremely close, going back to my sophomore year of high school when she started recruiting me. I kind of had to grow up and mature really quickly. And realize when you have more than one person in charge of you in your career, you can learn more things."

And for Versyp, it was a chance to come back as an adult to Mackey Arena -- where she also had to grow up.

"Being here is very comforting," she said. "As a player, it seems like you're agonizing over something every day. I have more confidence now. I just feel at peace when I walk in this gym."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.