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Thursday, February 12, 2004 - Page updated at 01:47 A.M.

Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist
Presnell, SPU learn to enjoy life at top


Gordy Presnell
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The wins kept coming. Routs over Alaska-Anchorage and Seattle University, Humboldt State and Western Oregon. Thrillers over North Dakota State and Central Washington.

Home games became events. Students and faculty replayed every one of them as if they were the most important happenings on campus. Even the city began to take notice.

In a crowded sports town like Seattle, sportswriters and television crews began arriving at games and practices to describe the phenomenon happening at the foot of Queen Anne Hill.

They were making magic at Seattle Pacific. The women's team was beating everybody, winning 29 straight games, making it all the way to the regional final on a Monday night right smack in the middle of March.

But with each win came more pressure. With each win came more questions and an overwhelming sense of expectation. It became harder and harder for the players and their coach to enjoy the wins. Every win, no matter how lopsided, was draining.

Instead of being happy with the wins, the team began feeling almost a sense of relief that another obstacle had been cleared. And, as the regular season dragged into the dog days of February, the national tournament in March loomed as large and foreboding as Everest.

This successful little program that previously had been anonymous and fun was getting bigger faster. The pressure that came with the attention affected the way coach Gordy Presnell ate, slept and even coached.

All of him wanted the success, but a large part of him felt uneasy with all the attention.

"He's pretty private," his wife, Susan, said, "and the attention definitely was overwhelming. It goes along with the success, but it was something he wasn't comfortable with."

The team won 29 straight games last season, but Presnell, slender in the best of times, lost 30 pounds.
 
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Seattle Pacific became the top-ranked school in the NCAA's Division II, but Presnell kept waking up at 4 a.m., already worrying about the next game, fretting about the expectations, thinking too far ahead.

"This was all new territory at the time for us," Presnell said this week. "As a coach, you don't really ever think about going undefeated. You don't think about being rated No. 1 in the country very often, and once you get there you don't want to lose it. Just one thing led to another. It was very stressful. We just hadn't been exposed to that kind of pressure, attention."

Last season should have been the best of times, but there were times Presnell wondered why it felt like the worst of times. He was having a John Wooden-like season, yet he wondered why he felt so tired and wondered why he wasn't enjoying every second of such a special season.

"Instead of enjoying the moment, we're worrying about how we're going to keep it going," Presnell said. "I couldn't seem to be able to get through that. My wife thought I was wacko."

The run ended one game short of the Elite Eight of the Division II tournament. SPU lost a late lead at home and lost to Cal State-Bakersfield 85-80 in the West Regional final.

After the game, during the trophy presentation, the standing-room-only crowd chanted, "SPU, SPU, SPU." Presnell raised his hand to ask for silence. Instead, many fans waved back at him, and it was at that moment that Presnell realized the impact his team had had on its community.

"It caught me right there how much people were in our corner," Presnell said. "I saw these people waving at me, and it was like they were saying to me, 'We feel so bad.' I walked out of the gym that night thinking, 'What did we just let slip out of our fingers here?' "

At the time it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime season, but this year SPU is winning again. It is perfect again, 20-0. It has won 35 straight games in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and has won 53 regular-season games in a row.

The Falcons are ranked third in Division II, but there is a difference this season. They still are entertaining to watch, still run and gun, but this season they also are having fun.

"When we got to be ranked No. 1 in the nation last year the tension started to get pretty high," senior forward Kristin Poe said. "We had high expectations for ourselves and we also felt these outside pressures. I think this year there is a little more focus on the team and having fun.

"Coach is excited about what's going on. I think it's a little bit of a surprise that we are undefeated at this point. The atmosphere is definitely not so tense."

This season Presnell is singing with his players on the long van rides. He is sleeping at night. The 30 pounds have returned as the wins keep coming.

"He's definitely more relaxed this year," Susan said. "He seems to be kind of enjoying the ride. I think what he went through last year has given him some perspective. He's even having dessert every once in a while."

Pay attention to the SPU women's team. It's the winningest team in town. And don't worry about the coach. Gordy Presnell is hungry again.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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