Goestenkors muscled Duke into the nation's elite

Updated: April 4, 2006, 5:52 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

BOSTON -- When Gail Goestenkors got to Duke in 1992, she had a very good idea about the kind of team she wanted. She also pretty quickly figured out what kind of team she had.

Weight lifting was basically a foreign concept to that group of Blue Devils. Back in 1995, after Duke had gone to the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in the program's history, I wrote a story about how things had changed under Goestenkors.

Gail Goestenkors
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaGail Goestenkors has led the Blue Devils to two title games.
One of the 1995 Duke seniors, Kristina Meiman, laughed then as she acknowledged that at first, they all thought Goestenkors was, well, a little nuts. They wondered if she was trying to kill them. Meiman said their arms would be so tired from this weird, new weight-lifting thing that they'd struggle to wash their hair in the showers.

Pretty soon, though, they all figured out that Coach G knew what she was doing. Going to the NCAA Tournament and not being the punching bag of the ACC anymore felt a whole lot better than those 6 a.m. workouts felt bad.

Duke started to get some muscle, literally and figuratively.

But it was the 1999 Blue Devils that really propelled the program to being a national contender at the top level. To win, you need to recruit well. To recruit well, you need to win. How do you jump-start one to get the other?

Well, you have to work really, really hard and be a great salesperson. It helps, though, if you also get some luck. Maybe that luck is finding a local kid who's great but doesn't want to leave home for college.

Duke didn't get lucky that way.

Or maybe it's getting transfers who aren't happy someplace else.

Duke did get lucky there.

Center Michele VanGorp and guard Nicole Erickson left Purdue after then-coach Lin Dunn was fired in 1996. Dunn's friendship with her former assistant, Goestenkors, was a factor in both players coming to Duke.

Without them, the 1999 team would have been good, but likely not a No. 3 seed in position to knock off Tennessee in the Elite Eight.

With them, Duke had close to the kind of team Goestenkors had always wanted: really smart, hardworking, good-shooting guards (Georgia Schweitzer, Hilary Howard and Erickson), a tall and imposing center (VanGorp) and lunch-pail, blue-collar forwards (Peppi Browne and Lauren Rice).

That team made it to the NCAA title game, where it lost to Purdue. Those Blue Devils might have fallen short of winning it all, but they helped set the table for everything Duke has done since.

I think I've kind of settled into a different style that I'm comfortable with. I remember I used to feel like every single basket or call was life and death. I've come to understand that's not the case. I was probably headed toward an ulcer or something, because I stressed and fretted about everything. I'm just a little bit calmer now, but still as passionate.
Duke coach Gail Goestenkors
Making the Final Four helped a great deal in terms of Goestenkors getting a foot in the door of big-time recruiting.

I suspect recruiting might be just a little bit like lunch used to be at my high school. There were no signs saying, "Cool people obviously sit here" or "Semi-cool people, approach at your own risk" or "Second-tier popular, just stay in your comfort zone" or "Science and math nerds, you're in this corner" or "Even bigger losers, you know where you belong."

No, it wasn't ever specifically delineated, but we all figured it out from observation. Of course, now that we're old and don't remember why we were so gutless, we think, "Man, if I could go back in time for a day, I'd go right to the cool area, sit down and short-circuit the entire caste system for at least a full minute."

In recruiting, coaches usually know whom they can and can't go after. Some can pursue anybody. It's not easy joining that group. Goestenkors was able to at least start sitting with the cool people after 1999.

(Of course, Maryland coach Brenda Frese started crashing the cool table the minute she took over the Terps. The cool people have not been all that thrilled about it, but she isn't going anywhere, so they'll get used to it.)

Goestenkors' team this year is a lot like that 1999 group, except the parts are considerable upgrades. That's not a knock on those '99 kids, just the reality that this team reflects the athletic evolution of both the women's game overall and Duke's program specifically.

"We've got great post play but also good guards that can shoot the ball, penetrate -- we've got a little bit of everything," Goestenkors said. "In 1999 -- I loved that team -- we just weren't very athletic. I could do some of the things I wanted to do, but not all of them.

"I wanted to be able to trap and press, but we always had to play position defense. We couldn't get up in passing lanes and cause problems for people. Then we lost six seniors off that team and things changed drastically. We became smaller, but quicker. With Iciss [Tillis] and Alana [Beard] in those two years when we went to the Final Four [2002 and 2003], I liked that team, too.

"But I guess this year's team is the culmination of all of those qualities."

Whether the Blue Devils can beat Maryland and win it all this season, Goestenkors knows she has been on the right track for the journey this far. And now she wears the conductor's cap with more ease.

"I think I've kind of settled into a different style that I'm comfortable with," Goestenkors said. "I remember I used to feel like every single basket or call was life and death. I've come to understand that's not the case. I was probably headed toward an ulcer or something, because I stressed and fretted about everything. I'm just a little bit calmer now, but still as passionate."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

ALSO SEE