Even Kristen Holt admits to being “totally” surprised that she was chosen to replace Jen Warden as the head coach of the CSU women’s basketball team last spring.
“Sometimes even today I’ll drive and think, ‘I’m here. I’m the coach, and I’m the head coach,'” she said.
But what’s more shocking is the improvement Holt’s team has made from last year, a season that ended in 20-straight regular season losses.
With a win Saturday against Wyoming, CSU would double last year’s win total. While that total would only be eight, it would still be a significant step in the turning the program in the right direction, a direction the team followed not too long ago.
Believe it or not, but the CSU women’s basketball team once served as a source of pride for the university’s Athletic Department.
For seven straight years starting in 1998, the Rams played in a postseason tournament, as Sonny’s boys weren’t the only team on campus ranked in the national polls.
Then for one reason or another, the team took a nose dive into futility.
And last year-it now appears-was the worst of it all. Playing a game became a chore. And a negative attitude spread like the common cold.
Guard Bonnie Barbee remembers those dark days, and she’s glad they seem to be over.
“As far as I’m concerned, last year when you walked into the locker room, you could just see everybody’s faces the days they weren’t wanting to be there because it was just so mentally (tough),” Barbie said.
Not so coincidentally, the nosedive coincided with the arrival of former coach Jen Warden, who managed to win a conference game just five times out of 43 tries. Her three straight losing seasons, her only three seasons, were the first such span since the early 1990s.
So when Athletic Director Paul Kowlaczyk fired Warden last spring, it was a surprise to no one but Warden. But when he replaced her with Holt, it seemed Pauly K was just trying to use a chewed up piece of gum to fix a flood.
Holt was surely just a stop gap. She was an interim coach without the official title.
Now that the Rams are well on their way to respectability, promoting Holt seems to fall right in line with the hiring of Steve Fairchild among the several moves Kowalczyk has pulled to revive the Athletics Department.
More so than the number of wins, Holt has successfully changed the culture and attitude of the program.
“I know just coming in it was really negative atmosphere around the program, and I know some of the boosters weren’t really happy,” forward Juanise Cornell said. “I mean it was just kind of a whole negative feeling, and I think that’s what coach Holt’s really working hard at getting rid of. And I think the more we win, the more games that we play hard, and the more fans that we get, it will turn into a really good program and probably get to where it was.”
Trying to get the program where it was would be nice, Holt said. But she wants something more.
“I don’t want to just be as good as those teams in the past, I want to be better,” she said. “And I think we can be. It’s gonna take time, and it’s gonna require good recruiting. We got to get players in here, players like Becky Hammond, from the past who really carry a program.”
The most impressive thing about Holt: she’s had her players working hard and having fun. Imagine that.
“It’s still the hardest work I’ve ever put into anything,” Barbee said. “But it’s fun. It’s a fun atmosphere.”
Sports columnist Sean Star can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.