EWU’s 1987 women’s basketball team set the mark for the program’s success


Courtesy of EWU Athletics

The 1987 EWU women’s basketball team poses for a team photo. The team was coached by Bill Smithpeters (back left), who was inducted into the EWU Hall of Fame in 2010. The team as a whole was inducted into the EWU Hall of Fame in 2013, and are the only EWU women’s basketball team to make the NCAA Tournament.

By Drew Lawson, Reporter

In 1987, the EWU women’s basketball team traveled to Missoula for the Mountain West Athletic Conference Tournament and beat Montana in the championship to become the first team to make the NCAA Tournament in school history.

Since then, EWU has made four postseason appearances, but is still waiting for its second NCAA Tournament bid.

The 1987 team was coached by EWU Hall of Famer Bill Smithpeters and was led on the court by fellow EWU Hall of Famer Brenda Souther, who averaged 21.9 points and 10 rebounds per game. The year prior, the Eagles had been beaten by the Grizzlies in the MWAC Championship, and EWU was seeking revenge.

“We had finished so many years second to Montana,” Smithpeters told The Easterner. “We lost six seniors … (but) things seemed to fall into place.”

EWU defeated UM 77-74 to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Smithpeters said the day after, The Missoulian ran a picture of UM crying in the locker room after the game on its front page.

“They had already made their postseason reservations,” Smithpeters said.

Smithpeters said that the 1987 team was the first time that any EWU team, including men’s basketball and football, made the playoffs after EWU became a Division I school in 1983.

“People would tell you that they enjoyed watching women’s basketball,” Smithpeters said. “It was a big deal at the time.”

Mike Divilbiss, who was an assistant coach on the team, and is currently the athletic director at Lakeland High School in Rathdrum, Idaho, told The Easterner more about the 1987 team.

“We had some really talented players,” Divilbiss said. “We played Cheryl Miller’s team at USC and played them tough … We won 12 of 13 … and got hot in the tournament.”

Divilbiss said that Smithpeters’ coaching style was key in reaching that particular group of players.

“He was so patient,” Divilbiss said. “He had a tremendous heart for people … which that group of kids really needed.”

After their BSC Championship victory in Missoula, the Eagles lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to the University of Oregon.

Under current head coach Wendy Schuller, the Eagles have gone to the Women’s National Inivitational Tournament  three times and the Women’s Basketball Invitational once. The first WNIT bid came in 2010, when EWU won the Big Sky Conference regular season title before losing in the BSC Tournament semifinals. Schuller was named BSC Coach of the Year, while Julie Piper was named BSC Most Valuable Player and Brianne Ryan won BSC Defensive Player of the Year. The Eagles played UO in the first round of the WNIT and were soundly beaten 95-66.

“There were a lot of really good players on that team,” Schuller said. “I think probably the best thing about that team was we had six or seven players that on any given night could get 20 (points). We were really versatile.”

The Eagles next made the WNIT in 2013, a bid that ended in heartbreaking fashion at the University of Washington. Schuller told The Easterner about the nail-biting finish.

“We lost in double overtime,” Schuller said. “Hayley (Hodgins) got an offensive rebound in front of the rim with two seconds to go (in regulation). The referee blew the whistle, and she was like, ‘Oops! Inadvertent whistle.’ I swear to you, she called an inadvertent whistle, two seconds to go, our ball in front of the rim to win the game … We ended up losing in the second overtime.”

Under the leadership of Hayley and Delaney Hodgins, EWU won in the first round of its third WNIT bid in 2015 against Washington State University 67-65. The Eagles then lost in the second round to BSC foe Sacramento State 84-49.

The most recent EWU postseason appearance came in 2017, when the Eagles received an invitation to the WBI for the first time after making the BSC Tournament semifinals. They won against Texas State University 66-62 in the first round of the WBI before falling to Idaho 74-67 in the second round. EWU was led by all-time leading scorer Delaney Hodgins, Tisha Phillips and Ashli Payne.

“I think our seniors were pretty phenomenal about ending their senior season on a high note,” Schuller said. “(Phillips) and Payne both were potent offensively and could do a lot of things … It was a pretty solid team. I remember those two seniors not wanting their season to end.”

For this year’s team to make the postseason, EWU will likely need to run the table at the BSC Tournament, which starts March 11 in Boise. The Eagles currently stand sixth in the BSC with two regular season games to play.

Schuller said the team is still improving and will need to continue that trend to make a push.

“I think we’re playing better basketball,” Schuller said. “I think we’re in a pretty healthy place. We really have learned a lot from our experiences and are playing much more as a unit … We have to continue to get rid of the lulls that we sometimes have.”

Both regular season games remaining are at home, the first against Idaho State on March 7 and the second against Weber State on March 9 for Senior Day.