Whalen, Ohlde take programs to new heights


Editor's note: This column also appears in Monday's Tournament Dish.

When Lindsay Whalen and Nicole Ohlde committed to Minnesota and Kansas State, they knew there was a lot of work in front of them. Maybe they didn't know quite how much, though. Kids can't be expected to have that much perspective.

K-State had been to the NCAA Tournament twice in the 15 years before Ohlde signed her letter of intent in 1999. Minnesota had been to the tournament only once, period, when Whalen made her choice.

Ohlde is from Clay Center, Kan., Whalen from Hutchinson, Minn. And by both kids staying "home,'' they ended up having a greater impact than either could have had anyplace else.

The season will be over for one of them after tonight, when Mideast No. 2 seed Kansas State meets No. 7 Minnesota on the Gophers' home court (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2), Williams Arena. But the impact both have made on their programs will last well after they have moved on to the WNBA.

These two are not just standout basketball players. They are icons in their communities and states. They are exactly what we want college athletes to be.

Neither is the type to ever say, "Look, I did this.'' But I hope both of these exceptional young women one day will have a sense of real pride in what they did in college.

Whalen endured a 1-15 Big Ten season as a freshman, plus dealt with the Cheryl Littlejohn nuttiness. Ohlde carried all the weight during a 2-14 Big 12 season her freshman year.

Both got help as sophomores. Janel McCarville joined Whalen for 2001-2002, and they and the rest of the Gophers bought into Brenda Frese's contagious enthusiasm. Only to be "dumped'' by Frese when she moved on after one season to Maryland.

Pam Borton came in, and acknowledged it took her whole first season to really have everyone emotionally and mentally on board with her. But the Gophers showed that they were by season's end, when they upset Stanford and made the Sweet 16.

This year, Whalen had to overcome the hand injury she suffered Feb. 12. In her comeback game, Sunday against UCLA, Whalen had 31 points and nine assists.

"Obviously, if it doesn't kill you, it can only make you stronger,'' Whalen said. "I think I've enjoyed the process and the journey with this team. You enjoy while you're in it. You remember the people and the process and the way you went through it.''

Whalen, for as hysterically funny a kid as she is, has an extremely low-key demeanor at news conferences. Ohlde is also a hilarious kid ... except in news conferences. Ohlde is good for at least one "I was just getting good passes from the guards'' or "We were just executing our offense'' or "Next up is just another opportunity to step on the floor and play.'' Or even all three.

Away from the tape recorders, though, Ohlde has a sweet, sarcastic, light-hearted sense of humor. She's one of the most positive-thinking, good-natured kids you'll ever come across.

K-State coach Deb Patterson once referred to her as a "beam of sunshine,'' and if that sounds corny, think of what life would be like if there weren't some of those people around to make things better for all us non-beams.

Ohlde's "help'' came from Laurie Koehn -- who had to redshirt in 2000-2001 -- Kendra Wecker and Megan Mahoney, all now juniors. Koehn and Wecker are also native Kansans, and Mahoney, a South Dakotan, has been awarded "honorary Kansan'' status by Sunflower State folks.

Ohlde's No. 3 jersey was retired at K-State after her last home game on March 3. And even some of the proverbial "grown men'' in the crowd of 12,000-plus freely admitted getting misty-eyed at that ceremony. Because they are not just fond of Ohlde the player, but so proud that she represents the state of Kansas.

Of course, you could feel that same kind of love and pride in Williams Arena when Whalen came back Sunday. She belongs to her state the same way Ohlde belongs to hers.

And both have given kids in those states a reason to want to stay "home'' to play college basketball. Who can even guess how many dreams have been sparked in little girls on playgrounds all over Kansas and Minnesota.

"Nationally, we're expanding the parity in women's basketball,'' Patterson said. "We're challenging (schools) that hadn't necessarily invested in their programs to do the same. They now have examples like Minnesota and Kansas State where turnarounds are possible.''

That's what Whalen and Ohlde can carry with them forever.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.