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TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - RUECKCORVALLIS — Life will never be the same for the Oregon State women’s basketball team. But it still might be pretty darn good.


Gone from the OSU team that went 32-5, won the Pac-12 championship and Pac-12 tournament and reached the Final Four for the first time in school history are senior starters Jamie Weisner, Ruth Hamblin and Deven Hunter.

Weisner, a first-team All-American and Pac-12 Player of the Year, and Hamblin, twice first-team all-Pac-12 and twice the conference Defensive Player of the Year, played in the WNBA this spring. Hunter, a glue player who started for four seasons and ranks fourth on the school’s career rebound list, played professionally in Puerto Rico. The other seniors lost were reserves Samantha Siegner and Jen’Von’Ta Hill, also members of OSU’s back-to-back conference championship teams the past two years.

“Not having them around is weird,” says senior guard Sydney Wiese, a three-time first-team all-Pac-12 selection. “We pretty much experienced life with them every day for the past three year.

“So it's different, but we just keep going forward. There’s no time to dwell on them being gone. You work with the pieces you have right now and continue to build on their legacy.”

The legacy is great, but there’s a lot to be said for the pieces that make up the 2016-17 Beavers, too.

“We’ll miss (the outgoing seniors) a lot,” says Scott Rueck, one of four finalists for the Naismith National Coach of the Year Award who is beginning his seventh season at the OSU helm. “They had an incredible run. They’re incredible people. They had as much to do with turning this program into a winner as anyone.

“But this year’s group has been learning to exist without them. Other people are stepping into those roles. This is their team now. That’s college sports. I would love to be the Spurs and stay together for 20 years, but that’s not the way this works. We have the advantage of all those lessons learned and the culture in place because of that group.”

The returning starters are Wiese and senior guard Gaby Hanson, a defensive stopper of a year ago who will be called upon for all-around contributions this season. Two other likely starters are 6-5 junior Marie Gulich, Hamblin’s backup a year ago, and versatile 6-2 sophomore Katie McWilliams, the Beavers’ chief reserve as a freshman.

The fifth starter will likely be either 6-3 junior Breanna Brown or 6-3 senior Kolbie Orum, though there are a wealth of other possibilities involving 5-7 sophomore Taylor Kalmer and a quartet of incoming freshmen.

“I’m very excited for this season,” says Wiese, who led the Beavers is assists (5.0) and was second in scoring (12.8), rebounds (5.7) and steals (1.4) a year ago. “There’s a sense of urgency with this team. There are a lot of open spots to be filled. This program’s pride has been about facing adversity and overcoming challenges. That’s our mind-set still this season.”

Oregon State’s freshman group, ranked the No. 16 recruiting class in the nation last year by ESPN, features guards Mikayla Pivec of Lynnwood, Washington, and Kat Tudor of Woodbridge, California, and forwards Madison Washington of Las Vegas, Nevada, and Janessa Thropay of Chino, California. ESPN ranked Pivec No. 26, Washington No. 89 and Tudor No. 93 among the nation’s top recruits.

“There’s a lot of ‘new’ on this team,” says Rueck, whose 2015-16 Beavers lost to eventual national champion Connecticut in the national semifinals. “But (the players have) the benefit of understanding a culture that has huge expectations. They are coming in so far ahead of where we’ve been when we’ve had ‘new’ in the past. How to win, how to conduct yourself on and off the court — all those things are in place.

“I love our versatility. (The players are) really tough. They understand how we play, what we want to do. We’re going to compete at a high level and be a tough, hard-nosed team like we’re used to.”

Rueck says the Beavers have maintained their work ethic of the past two seasons.

“If anything, it has increased with the new players,” he says. “The returnees have welcomed them in. They’ve made it clear: ‘This is a new year. This is our year. Now, let’s go.’”

The “new” includes a pair of assistant coaches, replacing Mandy Close, who has left coaching, and Eric Ely, who has been re-assigned to a position as assistant athletic director/women’s basketball. The new aides are Brian Holsinger, a long-time assistant at Washington State who had accepted the Northwest Nazarene head coaching job in March, and Katie Baker, a former Big Sky Most Valuable Player at Montana who was a grad assistant at Wisconsin last season.

A year ago, Oregon State led the nation in opponents’ field-goal percentage (.324) and ranked seventh in scoring defense (51.9). Will defense again be the Beavers’ calling card?

“It better be,” Rueck says. “It has to be. That’s our identity in a lot of ways. This group is going to be another Oregon State team that defends at an extremely high level and puts a priority on it.”

But without Hamblin, the Beavers’ offense will be more high-octane.

“We’ll be looking to run a little more, to get into transition more,” Wiese says. “We have more mobility in a lot of positions.”

Says Rueck: “We’ll emphasize things differently (on offense) than we did in the past. If we want to bring our post out, maybe we do it more often. As this group evolves, that’s the fun of this season. There are a lot of unknowns. Our core system is in. Now let’s see where our strengths truly are going to be.”

The bulk of the leadership will be provided in the backcourt by Wiese and Hanson.

“We can’t say, ‘Hey, Syd’s going to score 40 points for us,’” says Rueck, armed with a contract extension through the 2021-22 season. “That doesn’t work at this level. But her leadership is more important now, because there’s a teaching aspect (with her teammates) that wasn’t the case previously. Now she is helping bring along a younger group. Everything she does matters just a little bit more because she has more of an impact.”

In some ways, Rueck says, Hanson’s contributions will equal those of Wiese.

“Gaby has such a high IQ,” the OSU coach says. “She sees the game through a different lens. She understands the game at an extremely high level and is a natural leader. She walks into the gym and knows what everybody is doing and has the courage to communicate that.”

Gulich could be coming into her own this season.

“Marie has a huge opportunity,” Rueck says. “She is looking to take her game to the next level. Marie has done an awesome job in the offseason. She is more comfortable on the perimeter. Her game is face-up. She is comfortable knocking down the 15- to-17-foot shot. She brings a different dynamic than Ruth did. She can pull her defender away from the basket. Back-to-the-basket is where we’ve had to teach her.”

McWilliams, who can play anywhere from point guard to power forward, gave the nation notice by knocking down three 3-point shots in the national semis against UConn.

“Katie’s our most versatile player,” Rueck says. “She has the IQ, the skill set and the body. We can put her at the 1 and have the tallest point guard in the country, but her natural position is a wing. The Final Four experience was a big one for her. She proved she belongs on the biggest stage. She’ll be a go-to player for this program moving forward.”

Kalmer played sparingly as a freshman, but she’ll be called upon to be a major contributor this season.

“Taylor has point guard skills with a scorer’s mentality, similar to Syd,” Rueck says. “She can score from anywhere, and she’s so quick. She learned everything from Jamie a year ago, from 200 pushups in her dorm room to a relentless work ethic, getting shots up on a daily basis. I love her fearlessness and the healthy swagger she plays with. It’s infectious. She’ll have a significant role for us.”

Pivec has “greatness” written all over her. It would be no surprise if she works her way into a key role off the bench this season.

“Mikayla is very similar to Katie,” Rueck says. “She’s so versatile. She can handle the ball like a point guard, yet she rebounds like a power forward, and she is a great facilitator. She’s a dynamic player.”

Tudor — who hails from the same high school and AAU program as former Beaver great Ali Gibson — will provide immediate scoring help in the backcourt.

“Kat was considered one of the best (prep) shooters in the country last season,” Rueck says. “She has deep range and maybe the quickest release I’ve ever seen. She plays with that same fierce competitiveness as Ali. She’s tough as heck and fits our system perfectly.”

Washington and Thropay may take more time to develop, but both will provide front-line depth this season.

Wiese says the current freshman quartet reminds her of her freshman group of 2013-14, which included Hanson, Orum and Brown (who redshirted her sophomore year).

“They’re willing to learn and be coached,” Wiese says. “They pride themselves on their work ethic. They’ve meshed together off the court. They’re like four sisters. They’re with each other 24/7. It translates to the court well.”

The freshmen won’t ride the bench.

“I don’t believe you have to have a freshman year where you have to learn everything before you can play,” Rueck says. “I believe freshmen can come in, do what we’re asking them to do, learn quickly and play like a junior by January. This group is on its way. I can see it already. They’re getting comfortable in our system.”

Rueck, incidentally, has another strong class en route. He has verbal commits from three players, including 6-8 Joanna Grymek from Seward County Community College in Liberal, Kansas. Grymek, a native of Poland, was rated by one service as the top junior-college post player in the nation.

Also coming on board next season are Aleah Goodman, a 5-10 point guard and two-time 5A Player of the Year from LaSalle Prep, and Taya Corosdale, a 6-3 power forward from Bothell, Washington. Corosdale is ranked No. 27 (and a five-star), and Goodman is No. 63 (a four-star) among the nation’s top recruits by ESPN. The Beavers are also recruiting the nation’s No. 2-ranked player, 6-foot guard Evina Westbrook from South Salem High.

As two-time defending Pac-12 champion, Oregon State will have a bullet aimed its way by each opponent this season.

“I don’t even worry about that,” Rueck says. “Last year, we had a huge target. You knew everybody would be up for you. Who cares? You go into the year knowing it’s a new year and all that matters is, are you going to get better and reach your potential as a group? This team has that ability.

“That’s the No. 1 thing that has stood out to me so far. This group is so competitive, has such high expectations, they’ll do anything to be successful. They’re like a family already. You’ll get everything they’ve got every day. They’re a coach’s dream.”

Oregon State probably won’t be favored to three-peat in the Pac-12.

“I would assume the expectations will be lower because we graduated so many key players, but what does it matter?” Rueck asks. “After you play your first game, all that stuff goes out the window. That’s part of the fun of putting this big puzzle together.”

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