- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Since Joan Bonvicini last led a team onto the floor for an NCAA tournament game nine years ago, the coach has experienced pain and frustration, re-evaluation and rebirth.
But all she feels right now, in this moment, is excitement.
"These kids, they respond and they trust me and each other," Bonvicini said.
Seattle University opened the Western Athletic Conference tournament in Las Veags on Wednesday night as the regular-season champion, playing for its first conference title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Who would have thought that the Redhawks (18-9, 15-3) would be here in the program's first season as a Division I program eligible for inclusion in the NCAA field? Bonvicini did.
"I had an idea after last season," she said. "For the first time, we won 20 games, but we were under the radar because we weren't eligible to go to the NCAA tournament yet. I knew with our core group coming back, we had a chance to be good."
After 33 years in coaching, finding success at Long Beach State and Arizona -- she has won 661 games in her career, which ranks 11th all-time in women's basketball, and led her teams to 17 NCAA tournament berths -- Bonvicini knows what good looks like.
She knows what bad looks like as well. Not just bad, but the worst.
Bonvicini was on a recruiting trip as Arizona's head coach back in September 2005 when she got the call that her team's star center, Shawntinice Polk, was dead. Polk died suddenly from a blood clot in her lung and the program was in tatters.
Bonvicini has chosen not to discuss publicly the things that she and her players went through in the years immediately following Polk's death. She was fired in 2008 as the Wildcats' struggled on the floor while Bonvicini tried to hold things together.
"I wasn't coaching," Bonvicini said. "I was managing a very difficult situation."
Bonvicini was away from coaching a team for 16 months, but not away from coaching or the game. She took basketball trips, visited friends who were running their own programs, went to practices, watched film.
"I reached out to a lot of people," Bonvicini said. "I thought I would go in and watch practices and coaches, and they were asking me to evaluate their team and their staffs and talk to their teams. It was interesting that they wanted that from me.
"I know a lot of people thought after I left Arizona that I was tired. But I needed to be in a new environment."
She found that new environment in Seattle. Hired four years ago to shepherd the Redhawks into full Division I status, Bonvicini hired a pair of young coaches with Pac-10 pedigree -- former Washington standout Kristen O'Neill and former Pac-10 player of the year Shaquala Williams of Oregon.
"Both of them are detailed and smart," Bonvicini said.
And she recruited to win.
Her first recruiting class included current juniors Kacie Sowell and Sylvia Shepherd, named WAC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively.
"Hearing Coach say that she was going to make this a championship program was something that I bought into from the beginning," Sowell said. "But to think that it's happened my junior year, it did happen fast."
Sowell, who has posted 14 double-doubles this season, said Bonvicini's experience has helped to build a bond of trust with her players.
"She tells us what to expect, she lays it out for us," Sowell said. "She tells us to focus on one game at a time and we'll get there because she knows what it takes to get there and what it's going to be like."
The Redhawks got off to a slow start this season, posting a 3-6 record in a tough nonconference schedule that included losses to Washington and BYU. But a win over Idaho in their WAC debut set them on a better course, one that leads them to the brink of the NCAA bracket.
"We struggled early and we lost a lot of close games," Bonvicini said. "But we had to figure things out.
"People have asked me how we were able to do this so quickly, and there's no one answer. We set high goals for ourselves and when you start achieving them you gain confidence. And then you feel like you can accomplish anything."