Open tryouts to the Final Four: Oregon State's dramatic rise
CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) When Oregon State defeated mighty Stanford in January for the first time in 29 tries, Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer gave credit to Beavers coach Scott Rueck.
In the six seasons since Rueck took over, Oregon State had steadily ticked off the milestones. Beating Stanford was the latest.
There were more to come.
''He's put them into the national conversation, which is fabulous,'' VanDerveer said.
Oregon State's most recent accomplishment is the program's first-ever NCAA Final Four appearance. The Beavers face undefeated defending champion Connecticut in Indianapolis on Sunday for a chance to play for the national championship.
''Did I ever think we could be here in six years?'' Rueck said Wednesday. ''No way.''
To fully appreciate how far the Beavers have come, consider that when Oregon State hired Rueck, the team was down to two players and three recruits who were on the fence.
The Beavers were in disarray amid reports of player mistreatment, including verbal abuse, by the former coach. Oregon State had lost 17 straight at one point during the previous season.
Rueck had spent 14 seasons at George Fox, a Division III Christian college in Newberg, Oregon, leading the Bruins to six overall D-III tournaments and the national championship in 2009.
Coaching at his alma mater Oregon State was a dream.
Rueck was able to convince the three recruits to stick with Oregon State despite the uncertainty. But then he was left to build a Division I roster nearly from scratch. Taking a bold step in holding an open prospect camp for players, he could only promise walk-on status with a chance at earning a scholarship somewhere down the road. Fifty-five young women showed up.
At a rally on campus Tuesday, Oregon State athletic director Todd Stansbury marveled at how far the team has come.
''You're usually rebuilding something that's there, but this was the total creation of a new program, from the ground up,'' Stansbury said. ''I remember having some conversations early on, when Scott first came here, about whether we were going to have to petition the NCAA to take a season off, because we didn't have a team.
''So this is incredibly miraculous.''
The Beavers' climb was steady and in 2014 the team reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years. The ninth seed after finishing a then-school record 13-5 in Pac-12 play, the Beavers were runners-up in the conference tournament and advanced to the second round in the Big Dance. Rueck won league Coach of the Year honors and Sydney Wiese hit a Pac-12 freshman record 104 3-pointers.
The next season, Oregon State popped into the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1996, won the Pac-12 regular-season title to end Stanford's string of 14 seasons with at least a share of it, and again advanced to the second round in the NCAAs.
So far this season, the Beavers have collected a first-ever conference tournament championship, and, of course, that first Final Four. Oregon State climbed to No. 6 in the poll for its highest ranking ever.
Rueck said Wednesday that there are two memories that stick out in his six-year journey. The first was from his opening season, when the underdog Beavers came back from a 20-point deficit at the half to beat the rival Oregon Ducks at home at Gill Coliseum. The box score from that game still hangs on his office wall.
The second was last season, when the Beavers clinched the Pac-12 season title with a win over Cal. It was the final game at Gill for senior Ali Gibson, one of Rueck's first recruits.
''That was the culmination, after all the struggle, that it had actually happened here. A lot of people did tell me, and would tell you, that, `You probably can't win at Oregon State.' And that was the day we won at Oregon State - we're gonna raise a Pac-12 banner in this place.
''It was one of those surreal moments, when Ali Gibson gets carried off the floor on the shoulders of her teammates and there's confetti falling on us, and you look up and you're like, `I can't believe we did it. We got here.'''
A 60-57 victory over top-seeded Baylor on Monday got them here.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma is very familiar with Rueck, who was an assistant U.S. team coach for the Pan-Am games last summer. Auriemma is the head coach of the women's national team.
He joins VanDerveer in admiration of what Rueck has been able to accomplish.
''That coaching staff has done an incredible job with the perfect mesh of players that play his style. And the fan base has rallied around them. I watched one of their NCAA games and the crowd was really great,'' Auriemma said. ''They are really, really, really tough to play against. I don't think it's any upset that they're here. I really don't.''