KENNEWICK — With the frequent turnover of players in a two-year community college basketball program, it's pretty hard to sustain excellence in consecutive years.
In order for it to happen, players have to buy into a coach's system. They have to meld into a cohesive unit. They have to be special.
The Columbia Basin College women's team has those qualities.
For the second consecutive year, the Hawks enter the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges championships -- which begin at 8 a.m. today in Toyota Center and runs through Tuesday night -- as the top-ranked women's team entering the tournament.
In fact, CBC has an incredible 51-5 record over the last two seasons.
"Wow," said CBC coach Cheryl Holden. "I didn't know that."
But at the same time, it shouldn't surprise Holden, who has a special group of sophomores.
"I think that's what makes community college basketball different," Holden said as her team prepared for its 2 p.m. opener today against Tacoma. "The sophomores can decide which way to go."
Holden returned Andrea Bland, Tiffany Idler, Ana Jimenez, Hayley Strom and Lacey Young from last season's third-place squad to the team this season.
Players such as Jennifer Noon and Sara Vannoy also joined the team this season.
The results have been astounding: a 25-2 record entering the tournament; a No. 1 ranking all season; Holden named East Region coach of the year; Noon the East MVP after averaging 17.3 points; Idler (14.2 points) joining her on the first-team East all-star squad, and being named East defensive player of the year; and freshman Katherine Samuels named East freshman of the year.
No one, not even the team, expected this good of a season.
"Actually coming into the season, all of the sophomores might admit that we were scared," said Young.
Jimenez, who averages 11.0 points, agreed.
"Especially coming into this year, we lost a lot of sophomores from that team that finished third," she said.
But there were signs.
Holden noticed before the season started when the Hawks went to Walla Walla to scrimmage Whitman College.
"We had been playing against each otgher for four weeks," Holden said. "But when we scrimmaged at Whitman, I saw a competitive group of girls I had not seen at practice."
Then a preseason tournament at Chemeketa began to open their eyes.
"I think after the first preseason tournament, we didn't know what to expect," said Idler, from Columbia-Burbank. "Then we won the tournament, and we were like 'Hey, maybe we can win this thing.'"
Still, the Hawks weren't convinced themselves.
"But when the first rankings came out, we were No. 1 and we were shocked," Jimenez said.
That was in December.
It still took three things to happen for CBC to get where they are today:
1. The emergence of Noon.
2. Overcoming a season-ending injury to Bland.
3. Putting that good team chemistry to work.
Noon, from Central Point, Ore., came to the Hawks after one season at Lewis-Clark State College, where she didn't get much playing time and was ready to move on. Someone suggested to her that she look into CBC, and she did.
In order for the Hawks to win, people like Jimenez had to step back and let Noon get her touches -- even if that meant less for Jimenez.
"I didn't care," Jimenez said. "I wanted to win."
Before East Region play began in early January, Bland went down with a knee injury in practice that ended her season.
It could have ended the team's season.
"Andrea worked so hard," said Idler. "She pushed you in the weight room. She was one of our captains."
Holden didn't know what to expect.
"Andrea went beyond what was asked of her in the spring and summer," said Holden. "When she went down with the injury, the game against Blue Mountain was going to be a big test. The girls said 'We're each going to have to take some of her points and rebounds.'"
Bland, from Ellensburg, couldn't have been more proud of her teammates.
"They didn't (implode)," Bland said. "I think they have the heart and dedication. They wanted to win. And I wanted to be there. I want to support the team."
Every game, she sits on the bench as a kind of de facto assistant coach, pointing out details to her teammates.
And it's not just Bland.
Strom and Vannoy don't see much playing time. But it's those three or four practices in between games where they know they make a huge contribution.
"My goal is to make every single person around me better," said Vannoy, who went to Kiona-Benton High School.
Strom, who played at Wapato, agrees.
"I have a role, and that's to push my teammates to get better," she said. "On the bench, you try to keep up the intensity. Do whatever you can to help."
And that chemistry? Try living with and around 11 other people for five to six months and see how that goes.
For the Hawks, it's been easy.
"We all kind of clicked," said Strom. "A lot of us had experienced the high school drama on our basketball teams. But we're more mature, and everyone decided not to put up with it."
Noon said she's never been around a team whose players like each other so much.
"I think we have a serious bond," Noon said. "We're all in this together and we're not in it for oursleves."
Selflessness. That's the word.
"Last year's team didn't hang out as much as this year's team does," Holden said. "I have not seen anyone saying 'I'm not getting my numbers. I'm not getting minutes.'
"It's a selfless group."