With a new coach, a history of failure and a ridiculously thin bench, not much was expected of the Idaho Vandals women’s basketball team last year.
But Jon Newlee’s squad shocked the Western Athletic Conference by posting its best performance since joining the WAC, going 13-15 (10-6 WAC) and earning a 3-seed in the WAC Tournament. Newlee was a deserving recipient of the WAC Coach of the Year award, despite the fact that the Vandals lost in the quarterfinals — the lack of depth finally showed through.
Key to the resurgence of Vandal women’s hoops was a 5-3 spark plug from San Diego: Charlotte Otero. Controlling the Vandals’ offense, Otero dished up 100 assists while playing an astounding and NCAA-leading 40.6 minutes per game — that’s right, she averaged more than a game a game, thanks to overtime games.
This year, the Vandals are looking for their first postseason berth since Pat Dobratz took them to the 1986 Women’s NIT Championship. Otero’s floor leadership will be key to that quest, and we sat down to talk with her about the coming season.
Vandal Nation: Talk about how your basketball career got started.
Charlotte Otero: I started playing in fifth grade. My best friend was playing, and I kind of went along with what she was doing. I really loved it, and I was just good at it. Our high school (San Diego High) was really good, we never lost a game in our league for four years. We were league champions all four years, went to the state tournament twice and lost once in the final. The experience was great — I got to play with big-time players like Charde Houston, who went to UConn and is now in the WNBA.
What brought you to the University of Idaho?
I was originally going to try going to a JC in Arizona. It was fairly close, it had a four day school week so I could come home and visit my family. I signed there, but then my high school coach said, “Go try Idaho, give it a chance.” I said, “I don’t want to go, it’s Idaho, I don’t even know what’s out there, I don’t even know where that is!” But they convinced me to come out on a visit, the day after I graduated high school, and that changed my mind — I wanted to come play up here.
San Diego to Moscow, that must have been quite a change.
To be honest, at first I hated it. It took some getting used to, but I love Moscow now, it’s such a second home. I really don’t see myself moving back to California. I don’t know where I’m going to stay, but I love the small town atmosphere and the snow’s even growing on me — for the first couple months, anyway!
Talk about the difference you’ve seen Jon Newlee make in the program, as compared to his predecessor, Mike Divilbiss.
Things are a lot different. Everything’s more fun, the game is more our style of play, the way I want to play. Before, it was all about slow it down, run this play, run that play. Now we run up and down the court all the time. It makes the game so much more fun to play and I’m sure it’s much more fun to watch. We also get a lot more support out of our coaching staff. Having coaches who have more experience and know what they’re doing has helped us as players, because we have much more confidence in what they’re telling us to do.
What was it like playing every minute of every game last year?
It was pretty crazy. I mean, it was pretty much the same my freshman year, but we had a much slower pace then. But I like being on the court and leading, it gets me so much more excited. If I ever come out, I won’t be happy about it… unless I’m cramping up! I feel like I can go the whole time. I love playing, it’s my last year here, why not?
All of you being out on the floor so much, and having such a thin bench, how did that affect you as a team?
I think it made our team come together. We were only playing six players and dealing with injuries was tough. At the beginning, we weren’t used to playing with each other and weren’t used to the system. We didn’t know exactly what the coaches wanted for awhile. Going from there to where we ended up, it makes me feel like “Well, if we did that well last year for our first season with Coach Newlee, what’s going to happen this year?” We can only really expect things to get better.
Newlee told me he expects you to step up and be the team leader this year. What’s that mean to you?
Last year, I spent a lot of time getting used to the coaching staff. This year, I know what the coaches expect out of me and I know what they want. Now that I know the system, I can lead our team out on the floor more. I love being that floor leader, I want to do that.
Are there any games you’re particularly looking forward to?
Well, we play Baylor in Texas, which is going to be a fun game. Like coach said, we have to play the best to beat the best. I’m looking forward to playing Portland again, and all those teams that we played last year at the beginning that we let slip away. We play Long Beach State in Long Beach, I have a lot of family coming up to see me there. The WAC is always going to be tough, and I’m excited to see how those teams have changed throughout the year, and adapt to those changes so we can beat them.
What difference will the team’s newfound depth make?
With having a lot more fresh legs, we can go uptempo even more than we did last year. We had to calm it down sometimes because people got tired, this year we can sub in and out and keep going as hard as we can. I feel like that means we can all play to our full potential. You know, we saw a big jump in attendance last year and I hope that continues this year, because we’re going to put on a really good show for the fans.
You had a really tough out in the WAC Tournament. Are you looking forward to avenging that?
Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve tried to block that game out of my memory by now, but I can’t wait to get back to the WAC. My goal this year is to win the WAC, period. It’s my last year here, and before it was really never in our reach. After last season I really feel like we can do this. Our team’s getting stronger while other teams are losing some of their top players. We have everyone back and we’re only getting better.
What are you majoring in, and what would you like to do after hoops?
I’m majoring in business marketing and minoring in advertising. My dream job would be doing advertising or marketing for Adidas or Gatorade or something like that. I’d love to stay in sports, preferably something to do with basketball, because I love being around the game.