Everything changed the day Laurie Koehn decided to become a Wildcat.
The sharp-shooting guard from Hesston was the first big-get for Kansas State coach Deb Patterson. With Koehn in the fold, Patterson knew the chances of landing Clay Center’s Nicole Ohlde, and then a year later, Marysville’s Kendra Wecker, just got better.
(From left, Kansas State’s Megan Mahoney, Nicole Ohlde, Kendra Wecker and Laurie Koehn pose for a photo prior to the 2003-04 season. The Wildcats went 26-5 that season, advanced to their second straight NCAA tournament and won the Big 12 regular-season championship — K-State’s first conference title in 17 seasons).
“The minute we got Laurie Koehn, everything looked different from a basketball perspective,” Patterson said Thursday. “Just having her, and then knowing you could potentially put frosting on the cake with Ohlde maybe believing we can win and that maybe that meant Kendra would believe we can win if we get these young ladies together.
“Laurie was the breakthrough… it gave us a chance to open the door to the others.”
The Big Three was about to be formed — a trio that would include a pair of Big 12 Players of the Year, two All-Americans and the NCAA’s all-time leading 3-point shooter.
“I think we all knew deep down inside K-State is where we all wanted to go,” said Ohlde. “Once Laurie and I got there, we were pushing really hard for Kendra. We were not going to let her go anywhere else.”
The Wildcats struggled that first season, in 2000-01, after a foot injury forced Koehn to the sidelines. Ohlde, who was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, would have to go it alone, as the Wildcats finished 12-16.
A year later, however, everything would begin to fall into place. Ohlde, a sophomore then, and Koehn finally healthy, welcomed the other key piece to the puzzle in Wecker — forming a trio of Kansas girls that would change the K-State women’s basketball program forever.
Koehn, Ohlde and Wecker would go 80-19 the next three seasons together — advancing to the NCAA tournament each year, making the Sweet 16 in 2002-03 and then winning the Big 12 regular-season title in 2003-04 — K-State’s first conference championship in 17 years.
K-State was 25-6 that season, undefeated at home (13-0), advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament and finished the season ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press poll.
Ohlde became a two-time Big 12 Player of the Year, while Koehn, Wecker and Megan Mahoney all earned All-Big 12 honors. Wecker and Ohlde — both All-Americans — were finalists for the Wade Trophy, Naismith and John R. Wooden Awards.
Ten years later, that championship team will be honored on Saturday when the Wildcats (9-14, 3-9 Big 12) play host to Texas Tech (6-18, 0-13) at 2 p.m. in the annual “Play 4 Kay” cancer awareness pink game at Bramlage Coliseum.
Ohlde, who went on to play seven seasons in the WNBA before retiring in 2010, said she has grown to appreciate what that team accomplished more and more as the years have passed.
“I think as you grow older, you start to appreciate it more than you do when you’re 22 years old,” said Ohlde, who is a personal trainer at Max Fitness in Manhattan. “Looking back, those were the best four years of my life so far. I made lasting friendships, I loved the coaching staff and I learned a lot. I can’t say enough about what that experience has meant to me.”
Ohlde is one of a handful of former Wildcats expected back this weekend, including Wecker, who would be named the 2004-05 Big 12 Player of the Year, Claire Coggins, Chelsea Domenico, Amy Dutmer, Brie Madden, Jessica McFarland, Kimmery Newsom and Naytanda Smith.
Koehn — who has an NCAA-record 392 career 3-pointers — is unable to attend because she’s playing professionally in Australia. Mahoney, who is 16th in school history with 1,307 career points, second in assists (589) and seventh in rebounds (804) is also unable to attend because she’s playing in Italy.
“Coach Patterson and Coach (Kamie) Ethridge put together a great team that was able to complement each other really well,” Ohlde said. “We had shooters, rebounders, we had Kendra, who was probably the most athletic player I ever played with, and we had role players who came to work everyday ready to do their job, worked at practice everyday to get better and helped everyone else get better.
“We all put aside our egos, our own wants and needs and worked together for one common goal and that made it a special team.”
Coggins, who was a freshman that season and is now in her second year on the K-State coaching staff, was in a unique position when she joined the program in 2003-04. From Lee’s Summit, Mo., Coggins knew all about the Wildcats and the star power in Manhattan.
It would have been easy to be intimidated as a freshman in the K-State program then. After all, the Wildcats were coming off their second straight NCAA tournament, a Sweet 16 appearance and a 29-win season — climbing as high as No. 2 in the AP poll the year before Coggins arrived.
“I would be a liar if I said I wasn’t impressed by them when I was young — I was a fan,” said Coggins, who would go on to score 1,236 points in her career. “But it was wonderful because they brought us all in and they were very kind people and wonderful teammates. I was so proud to be part of this team. It was a fabulous experience and I think about the experience all the time.”
(Former Kansas State All-Americans Nicole Ohlde, right, and Kendra Wecker share a laugh during an NCAA tournament press conference).
At one point that season, K-State’s starting lineup included Ohlde, Koehn, Wecker, Mahoney and Coggins — all five of whom would go on to play in the WNBA.
“As a freshman, I remember all of them being leaders, from the top down — Ohlde, Mahoney, Koehn, all of them,” said Coggins, who played for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. “They all got in me as a freshman and really set the standard.”
It was a standard that every K-State team since has worked hard to live up to. There are daily reminders scattered throughout the program, whether it’s the larger-than-life images of former All-Americans in the Basketball Training Facility, the 2003-04 Big 12 championship trophy on display or the gigantic numbers once belonging to Ohlde and Wecker that hang in Bramlage Coliseum.
It’s a standard that forever changed the landscape of women’s basketball in Manhattan.
There are only three 2,000-point scorers in K-State history and two of them played three seasons together. Wecker is the all-time scorer with 2,333 points, while Ohlde is second with 2,241 points. And Koehn, who was seen by some to simply be a 3-point specialist, finished with more than 1,700 career points for fifth in school history. Wecker and Ohlde also combined for 2,082 career rebounds, ranking 1-2 as well.
As amazing as Ohlde and Wecker were on the court at K-State, so was their ability to co-exist. Two superstar talents, both Big 12 Players of the Year, All-Americans and both eventually drafted in the Top 10 of the WNBA draft.
“I don’t think we thought twice about it,” Ohlde said. “We both wanted to win and both knew that we made each other better. With the coaching staff we had, there was no way anything could creep in either… Who wouldn’t play with somebody that good who could get you wide-open layups? It worked for both of us. We both wanted to win.
“I loved every minute of it.”
The duo of Ohlde and Wecker, with Koehn launching 3s from what seemed like the next state, and Mahoney doing a bit of everything on the court, mixed in with valuable role players, all played a part in what became one of the hottest tickets in town for several years.
K-State averaged 8,158 fans a game during the 2001-02 season, climbing to 8,753 per game in 2002-03, before reaching a school-best 9,365 fans a game during the Big 12 title season — including 13,340 in attendance for Kansas, more than 12,000 for Texas Tech and almost 11,000 for Oklahoma.
“I’ve said there will never be anything like that again,” Patterson said. “I don’t mean that to be negative. I mean that with the utmost respect and fondness because it was a special point in time in Kansas State women’s basketball history. It was so unique that you had these players, who had all been, basically from Kansas, or very close, and their fans, communities, followed them to Kansas State.
“Every game, their towns would shut down early, get on the road, and come to basketball games… You’re talking 1,000 people or 800 people or 600 people from entire towns — these people would turn the lights out in their town and come to games here.
“The achievements, the ride, the sellouts, there will never be firsts like that again.“Laurie was the breakthrough… it gave us a chance to open the door to the others.