A Culture of Commitment
Bears buy into coach Ethridge's system, notch second 20-win season in three years
Coming into the 2016-17 season, UNC was an afterthought for media and coaches as they ranked teams in preseason polls. They predicted the Bears would finish no better than ninth, something guards Savannah Smith and Savannah Scott didn’t take kindly to.
“Me personally, I was really mad about being ranked ninth just because I knew we were better than that,” Smith says.
Her teammate Scott adds: “It definitely put a chip on our shoulder this season. I think we worked harder because of it to prove everyone wrong.”
They finished the season leaving no doubt that the Bears are a team to regard. Though their season was cut short in the Big Sky Tournament with a heartbreaking 60-59 loss to Idaho State, the Bears matched the program record for wins with 22, finished the regular season ranked third in the conference and will return all five starters next season. And, Smith and Scott earned first and second team All-Big Sky honors.
Two of the three seasons coach Kamie Ethridge has been in charge, the Bears have reached the 20-win mark. In her first season, Ethridge took UNC to the third round of the WNIT, falling at UCLA, the eventual WNIT champion. The Bears also finished with 22 wins that season.
Ethridge, a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer who was the MVP on the 1986 national champion Texas Longhorns team and went on to earn a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, credits the winning seasons to player buy-in, the foundation of a winning culture. “It’s crucial,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if I walk in and say this is how I want it to be, if they haven’t decided that they want that themselves or communicated that they want to be about those things then it’s always coach-driven and the players don’t have to take any accountability toward the culture.”
When Ethridge took over, she made it obvious that this wasn’t a democracy. She set the standards and wasn’t going to lower them for anyone. Her players recognized this right away.
“Work ethic has been a big part of this program because Coach Ethridge emphasizes it,” senior guard Katie Longwell says. “Coach brings that competitive nature with her and she expects everyone to kind of share in that, so if you didn’t want to buy in on hard work and high expectations you weren’t going to be here very long.”
Smith attests to that.
“We’re up at 4 a.m. every day, ready for practice at 6 a.m., and then go to class and have workouts along with it,” she says. “It all goes back to mental toughness. We put in a lot of hard work over the summer and I feel like that has prepared us for all the travel and the long weeks of conference play.”
And that hard work and culture of commitment will be back next season, as the team sets out to prove once again that they’re a team to watch.
–By Kobee Stalder