U women’s hoops looks for rebirth

Aaron Kirscht

It’s not an easy time to be a member of the Gophers women’s basketball team.
Another losing streak — now up to five in a row — is off and running as the team heads to the Big Ten tournament this weekend. And then there’s the looming speculation about the team’s future, in particular, coach Linda Hill-MacDonald’s.
But the season isn’t over yet. Those things will work themselves out somewhere down the line, and now the Gophers need to work the kinks out of game plan that’s helped them to a string of blowout losses.
“All the distractions have to go in one ear and out the other,” Hill-MacDonald said, “because we still have a job to do. We’ve got another game.”
The Gophers play Wisconsin (16-10 overall, 8-8 in the Big Ten) Friday at 8 p.m. A loss would just be more of the same, but a win would provide Minnesota with a bona fide high point of the season.
Regardless of how the game turns out, Hill-MacDonald will remember more than the win-loss column from this season. The coach and her team have weathered the storm of injuries and inexperience to come together.
“They’ve been a real pleasure to work with this year,” Hill-MacDonald said, “but it could have been brutal. It’ll take me a long time to forget this team.
Still, this season will likely go down as one of the worst in the history of the program. With a season-ending loss on Friday, Minnesota would match its lowest win total ever. In 1973-74, the first season of intercollegiate women’s basketball at the University, Linda Wells coached the Gophers to a 3-10 record.
Hill-MacDonald and women’s athletics director Chris Voelz are expected to meet soon after the season ends, presumably to discuss the season and how it pertains to Hill-MacDonald’s future with the program.
A similar meeting was held in August after last season, Hill-MacDonald said, but she wasn’t aware of when such a meeting would take place this year.
Both Voelz and the coach have been reluctant to discuss the specifics of personnel matters, but the rumor mill has been operating at full speed. Recent expressions of disappointment on the part of Voelz and McKinley Boston, University vice-president for student affairs, to the media have some believing that this weekend may be Hill-MacDonald’s last at the Gophers’ helm.
Hill-MacDonald is in her seventh season as coach at Minnesota and has one year left on a four-year contract extension she signed in 1994. If Voelz decides not to retain Hill-MacDonald, the department will still be responsible for paying the coach’s salary for the 1997-98 season, totalling $87,500.
It’s not hard to understand, then, that Hill-MacDonald’s attention may be divided. But she credits her team for keeping her mind where it belongs — on basketball.
“They make coming to work easy,” Hill-MacDonald said. “They keep the excitement in the game, because they work so hard. They stay optimistic, and they just keep after it. That keeps me going.”
The team’s upbeat attitude is the start to turning the program around, Hill-MacDonald said. And a deeper bench wouldn’t hurt, either.
“This program can come back,” she said. “Heaven knows what may have been had the circumstances been different. I just hope people haven’t written this program off.”