By Jeremy McDonald
SALEM, Ore.– As the sun sank on the late-May evening, a small gathering gathered at a house just off of Croisan Creek in South Salem to see Saxon Senior Gretchen Olsen sign her letter of intent to play basketball at Southern Virginia University starting this upcoming school year.
Four years ago when Olsen came onto campus, the Saxons were looking for their third-straight 6A State Championship entering Nick McWilliams final year as Head Coach of the program and the Senior Year of girls like a Evina Westbrook and a Dani Harley looking for the three-peat.
“It was crazy, it helped me a lot to definitely build that confidence to have within myself going into freshman year. I was tentative and kind of hesitate on the offensive and defensive end,” “Coach McWilliams put me on Evina everyday in practice, so that kind of helped me get into a rhythm quickly.
“That was really good for me. Evina and Dani were really good role models for me. Not just on the court, but to have the work ethic off the court.”
Westbrook went to play two-years at Tennessee before transferring to UConn this past school year, Harley played her freshman year at George Fox before transferring to Northwest Christian University in Eugene. Both gave Olsen very good insight on the game and Olsen remembers taking in the gym rat aspect of her game from Westbrook, who was in the gym an hour before practice getting shots up.
Motivating the young Saxon ball player to take in a similar approach with her work ethic moving into the last three years of her playing career.
“That really motivated me my sophomore year, junior year, senior year just to build up that work ethic up and be just like her. She was great, she was always positive with me. Really motivating me in all aspects of my life, it was awesome,” said Olsen.
As the Westbrook’s and Harley’s moved on, Olsen, Victoria Stafford and the incoming freshman in Hilary James the following year reloaded. 12-13 was an anomly for what it was to come Olsen’s sophomore year as they went 20-6 and 23-4 the next two years. Reaching the Chiles Center this past season and were set to play South Medford in the Semi-final round.
“Sophomore year we knew it was going to be a re-building year for sure. Hilary was coming in, we were excited about that. We knew we had a lot to rebuild off of sophomore year, but we just kept having faith in the process and rebuilding. We kept having more confidence and just having better team chemistry,” said Olsen.
The promise of possibly taking down the Panthers and meeting whoever came from the other side of the bracket on Championship Day came to a halt the next day by noon when the OSAA called off the State tournament following the 6A Girls Consolation Semi-finals that morning.
Stunned and heartbroken just scratched the surface of how Olsen felt as she tried to comprehend what had happen to her and her team. She knows that it fires herself up to strive for that Championship as much as it drives everyone returning next year to return to the Chiles Center to finish the journey with a Championship.
“It was really tough, I went through two- or three-weeks kind of feeling sorry for myself. But not only feeling sorry for myself, but sorry for my teammates that we weren’t getting to experience that. That was tough for sure, but I think it has been refueling me to…. strive for me to be a champion,” said Olsen.
“We were league champions, but to continue that into college. Southern Virginia, they got a really good program and got a lot of success in the past. I’m still after the quest for that championship because I’ve never gotten that yet.”
The Knights went 16-9 this past year and 21-6 the year before. For Olsen, the school aligns with her religious beliefs, something that is important for her in this next chapter of her life.
“It was really important. That was a priority because religion has always played an important role in my life. I love Southern Virginia and not only for their religion aspect of it, where I was able to be around people who hold my high standards but also too it was a winning program in the past,” said Olsen. “The coach said that I was going to have a presence from the start and that’s what I wanted, so I wanted to grow off of my skills and just to have that opportunity to blossom.”
Photos By Jeremy McDonald