Whalen garners all the Gophers’ attention

Dan Miller

The annual women’s basketball poster hanging in the windows of McDonald’s and Papa John’s displays six different figures, but all of them are of the same player – Lindsay Whalen.

The program’s poster girl for the last three years, Whalen has become arguably the most prominent female athlete to play at Minnesota, not to mention a first team All-American and a self-projected top-15 WNBA pick next season.

But how has this small-town Minnesota player, who earned only honorable mention all-state accolades in high school, blasted her way past national high school All-Americans and become a local and national icon for basketball?

The answers might lie in the journey. In her three-plus years with the Gophers, few college players have had to deal with the changes, questions and letdowns Whalen has seen.

The Hutchinson, Minn., native, who didn’t know she wanted to or could play college basketball until her junior year of high school, came to the Gophers as an unknown. She came during a year when few really knew or cared who was joining the messy program.

Her first collegiate coach, Cheryl Littlejohn, was let go months later after infractions and NCAA violations.

Whalen found herself on a team looking for answers.

“Throw in some violations, and all of a sudden you have a little controversy,” she said. “It was definitely challenging at times.”

In 2001, Brenda (Oldfield) Frese became the Gophers’ coach and the team was re-energized. Whalen was named Big Ten Player of the Year and the team turned around an 8-20 season into a 22-8 season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

But turmoil would hit the team again as Frese, the 2002 Associated Press National Coach of the Year, would leave following the season for the University of Maryland. With questions abounding, Whalen decided to speak her mind.

“After coach ‘O’ left, I tried to step up a little and say we are going to be all right,” she said. “You’re going to have your coaches, but it comes down to what is in the team.

“Coaches aren’t out there playing; they can put you in the best possible situation, but you still have to make the shot and perform.”

Frese’s departure taught Whalen some hard lessons about basketball.

“It taught me a lot about the business aspect of the sport,” she said. “If you are not winning, you’re out, and if you are, you have to look to the next best opportunity. That’s the way it is.”

Whalen took it upon herself to call the incoming freshmen during the summer and told them they would be fine next season.

She was right.

Coach Pam Borton came into a program that had a core of players who wanted to win, and that’s exactly what they did.

Whalen and the Gophers, despite having to learn another system, advanced to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen and remain the 13th-ranked team in the nation.

Whalen, the honorable mention all-state player, dealt with three coaches, controversy and departure, and somehow brought her game and a program in disarray into the national elite. But she shares the team’s success.

“I don’t take credit myself for any of the turnaround; it has always been a big group effort,” she said. “We took a lot of pride in turning things around.”

And people have responded to the turnaround. Ticket sales have increased and a buzz surrounds the team – and Whalen.

Posters and TV commercials star the hometown girl who has become an icon for Minnesota women’s athletics and a role model for screaming children at Williams Arena.

“Whatever we can do to make it the best possible situation for the sport,” she said with a grin. “If that means I’m on posters and I have my jersey running around then that’s the way it is.”

Little children courtside at Williams Arena go crazy when Whalen walks by during warm-ups and gives them a nod.

“The kids love you, win or lose,” Whalen said. “You could have just played the worst game in the world, and it doesn’t matter to them. They just love that they got to meet you. I enjoy that.”

For Gophers fans, regardless of gender, Whalen has become an icon for women’s basketball’s popularity and success.

“Not many people get to play at a University like this, and have the opportunity to have people look up to you, and you have that influence on people,” she said. “You just have to enjoy it while it lasts.”

She will have a chance to make her mark nationally as well, hopefully moving on to the WNBA next season.

“Dana Taurasi (Connecticut) and Alana Beard (Duke) are going to be the main keys to make the WNBA go,” she said. “But I am one of 15 kids who can make an impact in the WNBA next year, and you take pride it that.”

But here and now, the Gophers try to live up to expectations and hype. And Whalen will be at the center of the pressure.

“The pressure for me is playing basketball and having fun,” she said. “Of course you want to win games, but if we don’t win the Big Ten championship and we don’t go to the Final Four, I’m not going to look back on my career and say, ‘I crumbled under the pressure.’ The important thing this year is realizing everyone on the team has pressure to affect the game.”

Through the changes, questions and letdowns, Whalen brought her game to another level, which helped turn around a program and warm Minnesota up to women’s basketball.

“For this state and this University, I think I have done my fair share and helped the state of the game,” she said.