Perhaps the true inspiration for this column occurred on July 23, 2021, sometime after 4 a.m.

I had stayed up all night in anticipation of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremonies, hoping to watch Sue Bird carry the American flag.

It made perfect sense that Bird, who had led the Seattle Storm to four WNBA championships and the U.S. women’s team to four Gold Medals, would join baseball player Eddy Alvarez in leading the country’s Summer Games contingent into competition.

Besides, she had gotten some flag-bearing advice from Dawn Staley, who’d done the honors in 2004 when Bird was an Olympics rookie.

“We’ve talked about this,” she said during an earlier interview. “She said listen, the flag’s not that heavy. You’re gonna be fine.”

And Bird was, toting the stars and stripes with the poise and dignity which had typified her entire career and inspired a generation of younger female athletes.

Not surprisingly, she now has five Gold Medals.

“Sue Bird,” Central Washington coach Randi Richardson-Thornley said, “Has an absolutely amazing skill set. She provides everything you need in a point guard.”

Brian Agler, who coached Seattle to its second title in 2010, was dramatically succinct about his team’s leader during a recorded interview.

“Sue,” he said, “does her job better than anyone that has ever played the game.”

And wow, how things have changed from Bird’s days at UConn, where the Syosset, N.Y. native guided the Huskies to two NCAA titles before embarking on an iconic Seattle career which ended last summer after 21 distinguished seasons.

From 2013 through 2017, Poway, Calif. product Kelsey Plum had produced an award-winning, record-shattering college career at Washington.

Storm Aces Basketball

Aces guard Kelsey Plum shoots around Storm guard Sue Bird during the first half in Game 1 of a WNBA semifinal series on in Las Vegas. The former Husky standout led the Aces to the WNBA title this year. 

The 5-8 southpaw guard was a four-year standout, propelling the Huskies to the first Final Four in school history as a junior and the next year averaged a national high 31.7 points a game en route to becoming the NCAA Division I career scoring leader.

In her final regular season game, Plum scored 57 points.

She then became the WNBA’s top overall draft pick, and last summer earned all-league first-team honors for the Las Vegas Aces who ended Bird’s career and the Storm’s season in the process of claiming the WNBA crown.

Closer to home, Cashmere’s Hailey Van Lith opened recruiters’ eyes as a high school freshman guard, signed with rising NCAA power Louisville and as a sophomore last season powered the Cardinals to the Final Four.

Some among the local observers who’d seen Van Lith play in the SunDome, among other places, questioned whether she had the physical requirements to excel at the elite college level.

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Cashmere’s Hailey Van Lith shoots over La Salle’s Leah Ashby during Friday’s night’s Class 1A state semifinal in the SunDome.

“I was one of those people,” said Walla Walla Community College coach Bobbi Hazeltine, who in 23 seasons with the Warriors has 496 victories and three NWAC titles to her credit. “She has proven us all wrong.”

“But overall, our game has improved and it’s continuing to improve. The players at our level are getting better all the time. And so is our game.”

Here in our own backyard, 6-3 Sam Bowman starred at Zillah High before becoming a dominant force for a rising Central Washington program.

After a modest two-year start, including a pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign, Bowman blossomed into a 16.2-point, 15.9-rebound performer last winter as the Wildcats went 24-8, won the GNAC Tournament championship and posted the first NCAA Division II Tournament triumph in school history.

She set a program record with 23 rebounds in the season opener at Stanislaus State, then demolished that mark with 29 boards weeks later at Concordia Irvine.

Her total was the highest for rebounders last season in any of the NCAA’s three divisions.

Not surprisingly, Bowman became a D-II second-team All-American.

The redshirt senior’s emergence as a double-double machine — she already has a 36-point, 19-rebound outing in the bank this season — has not surprised sixth-year coach Richardson-Thornley.

“For one thing, she works harder, longer than others do,” Richardson-Thornley said. “Plus she has a one-possession-at-a-time mentality, and she doesn’t think about herself.”

Bowman also has noticed the increased awareness and support for girls and women’s hoops as athletes such as Bird, Plum, Van Lith and herself have flourished.

Central Washington Women's Basketball | Jan. 20

Central Washington's Samantha Bowman takes a shot during a game against Saint Martin's Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022 at Nicholson Pavilion in Ellensburg, Wash.

“There’s a lot more support,” she said. “It’s taken awhile to develop, but we volunteer at a local school here in Ellensburg and I’ve enjoyed having kids come up to me and ask questions about our team and our program.”

Having already secured a degree, Bowman said she’s considering playing professional basketball overseas, or perhaps staying at Central next year to continue graduate work in Nutrition while joining Coach Mario Andaya’s volleyball team.

“I’ve loved the time I’ve spent here,” she said. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Others, including Robin Andrea and Alyssa Goins, who coach at Yakima Valley College and La Salle High School, respectively, are expecting the popularity of girls and women’s basketball to continue their upward trend.

“It’s more mainstream now than it’s ever been,” said Andrea, who’s starting his second season at YVC. “And we here in the NWAC are fortunate to have Bobbi, who’s an absolute legend.

“Something that’s also helped in our situation has been social media. Our girls don’t necessarily watch the game on TV even though they’re on a lot more than they used to be, they watch it on their phones. And it gives them a chance to connect with each other.”

Goins, meanwhile, coached La Salle’s boys for a year before taking over the girls program in 2009 and has guided the Lightning to a pair of state championships. She is pleased with the heightened recognition and participation regarding girls hoops, but also realizes her sport faces an ongoing struggle.

“There will always be people who will be against women’s basketball for whatever reason,” she said. “But I think the girls and women’s game will continue to become more popular because we’re getting better players, better coaches and the quality of basketball they’re producing is continuing to improve accordingly.”

Former Yakima Herald-Republic reporter and columnist Roger Underwood retired in 2017 after a 43-year career in the business. He worked at newspapers in Centralia, Olympia and Bremerton before joining the YH-R in 1997.

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