When Caroline Gruening joined the Santa Clara University women's basketball team three years ago she had no roster spot, no scholarship, no guarantees.
Gruening, a 1998 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate, was a walk-on guard for the Broncos. As a walk-on, Gruening would have to fight for every minute of playing time. She'd have to work twice as hard to get half the minutes of a scholarship athlete.
Gruening only saw action in 11 games as a freshman, finishing with 0.5 points a game. But then-coach Caren Horstmeyer liked enough of what she saw in Gruening to offer her a scholarship for her sophomore year. Last season Gruening saw time in 30 games, scoring 2.8 points a game off the bench.
Now, as a 5-foot-7 junior guard under new head coach Chris Denker, Gruening finds herself in every walk-on player's dream role.
She's started every one of Santa Clara's games this year at the two-guard position and ranked third on the team in scoring with a 10.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game before Saturday night's game against No. 12 Oregon (Gruening scored 19 points with five 3-pointers and dished out five assists to lead Santa Clara, which lost to the Ducks 62-54 Saturday). Gruening leads the Broncos in steals and is second on the team in assists.
"In my mind, I knew I'd eventually start," Gruening said. "The walk-on route has worked well for me so far. I had talked a lot with coach Horstmeyer before I came out for the team. They don't normally encourage walk-ons. But they encouraged me. They said depending on how things went they might be able to find some scholarship money for me by my junior year. Luckily, they were able to find something for me last year."
Denker, who was an assistant coach under Horstmeyer, said the chances of a walk-on player panning out are slim and only one other walk-on player in the last eight years has been able to earn a scholarship. He said walk-on players don't usually stick around long enough to help the team, but Gruening's work ethic and persistence helped her make the roster.
"Caroline's done a very good job for us," Denker said. "She always sets an example, off the court and in the weight room, too. She's definitely been one of our harder workers, but I think that's just Caroline's personality. She's always outworking everybody. When she was a freshman, she was the co-chemistry student of the year."
Gruening is a combined sciences major and is on the pre-med track. That means she has a lot of labs in her schedule. Denker said he has several players taking lab-based classes, so he tries to schedule practices around the labs. But adding the labs and practices to a day full of classes can make for a long day.
"It's hard, because certain labs are offered only at a certain time. But obviously academics come first here," Gruening said. "It's the same as anyplace else. You practice almost every day, and there's preseason conditioning so you go all but about two weeks a year. It is pretty demanding and it forces you to manage your time. We don't have much of a social life, but it's a lot of fun."
While Santa Clara stresses academics, that doesn't mean the Broncos aren't concentrating on athletics, too.
Santa Clara (3-2) is one of the smaller NCAA Division I schools, but two years ago the women's basketball team made it into the NCAA tournament and last year the Broncos went to the National Invitational Tournament. This year Santa Clara's only losses have been to No. 17 Stanford and No. 12 Oregon, and the schedule includes other ranked teams like No. 10 Texas Tech.
"We have some good chances to prove ourselves," Gruening said. "Our goal is to get ranked by the end of the season and to keep that ranking."
When she was in high school, Gruening helped the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears win a girls state basketball championship in 1995 when she was a sophomore. Two other players from that team ended up on NCAA Division I basketball teams (Cam Carroll at Gonzaga and Megan Gleason at Davidson, and both players have now graduated). But they all had to fight for exposure.
Gruening tried out for a couple of Alaska travel teams coached by East Anchorage High School girls coach Dorena Bingham, which gave Gruening exposure to college coaches in the Lower 48. Still, Denker said Santa Clara hadn't seen her until Juneau coach Jim Hamey sent Horstmeyer a videotape and said Gruening planned to enroll at Santa Clara. Gruening said she told them she planned to attend a basketball camp in San Francisco, so an assistant coach went to watch her play.
"I sprained my ankle in our first game, but I wanted to be seen so I played on it anyway," Gruening said.
The Broncos liked what they saw, but had already given away all their scholarships for Gruening's freshman year. Denker said even though Gruening was a walk-on, she showed she could compete with the scholarship players.
"She was definitely competitive, but she hadn't been exposed to the level of play of some of the others from their competition," Denker said. "But we saw there was something there. She's definitely taken advantage of the opportunity she got. She was ready for the hard work, the time and the commitment needed to be on the team. I think if her high school coach saw her play now, he'd be amazed at her improvement."
Denker said Santa Clara would love to make an inroads into Alaska for recruiting purposes, but many of the top players from the state in recent years have chosen to play for one of the 'name' schools (Juneau's Carlos Boozer and East Anchorage's Trajan Langdon at Duke, Colony's Jessica Moore at Connecticut, current East Anchorage star Azella Perryman at Stanford). But Santa Clara's men's team picked up Kyle Bailey of Lathrop this year.
"Definitely, Alaska players are being noticed more," Gruening said.
And while she didn't get to Santa Clara with a scholarship, the walk-on role worked for her.
"The coaches were very up front with me what my chances were. You really need to know what you can do and what your limits are," Gruening said. "It never crossed my mind I couldn't play at this level. When you get to college, everyone is used to being the go-to player on their team and it takes an adjustment. I went in with the idea that my job was to make the team better in practice. I struggled at times, but I knew if things went really well they'd get better."
Junior Kiersten Smith (Juneau-Douglas) transferred to Pacific Lutheran University from Whatcom Community College and has sophomore eligibility with the PLU women's team. Smith, a 5-foot-7 guard, is averaging 2.3 points and 1.7 rebounds a game off the bench for the Lutes through four games.
Sophomore center-forward Jaime Stanford (Haines/Mount Edgecumbe) has started in all eight of Southern Oregon's games this year and is averaging 3.6 points and a team-high 6.2 rebounds a game.
Freshman guard Tanya Nizich (Juneau-Douglas) didn't play in either game this weekend for the University of Alaska Anchorage women's team. Nizich has played in five games so far this year and is averaging 2.6 points and 1.2 rebounds a game off the bench for the Seawolves.
Sophomore Andrea Benner (Ketchikan) is the captain and starting point guard at Southwestern Oregon Community College, a team that also features freshman center Lillian Gordon (Mount Edgecumbe) and three other Alaskans.
Senior center Shaun O'Shea, a Juneau resident who graduated from a Virginia high school, grabbed two rebounds coming off the bench Friday as the University of Alaska Anchorage men beat Langston University. He added two more rebounds in Saturday's UAA victory. O'Shea, a walk-on, entered the two-game weekend series with Langston averaging 0.5 points and 0.5 rebounds a game for the Seawolves.
Sophomore center Nate Endicott (Yakutat) came off the bench to score four points for the University of Alaska Fairbanks men Nov. 30 as the Nanooks dropped a 101-72 decision to Maine. On Nov. 28, Endicott had two points and five rebounds as UAF lost 97-70 in an exhibition game with Villanova. Endicott had six points and nine rebounds in an 81-50 loss to Bradley on Nov. 22.
Freshman guard Evan Tromble (Juneau-Douglas) has only seen one minute of action so far in his first year with the Colorado School of Mines Orediggers.
There will be no repeat national championship for Pacific Lutheran junior linebacker Jasen Bennie (Ketchikan) after the Lutes lost 28-21 in overtime to St. John's College in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs Nov. 25. Bennie, who earned a national championship ring last year, finished the season with 23 tackles (12 unassisted and 11 assisted), three tackles for losses, a sack, four broken-up passes and one forced fumble.
Sophomore Ty Westre (Petersburg) ranks second in the 100-yard freestyle for the Western Illinois men with a time of 49.95 seconds. Freshman Travis Watson (Sitka) ranks second in both the 100 breaststroke (1:00.62), the 200 breast (2:18.50) and the 200 individual medley (2:03.00). Western Illinois is coached by former Petersburg High School coach Jerry Champer.
Junior Jesie Lewis (Juneau-Douglas) is the top-ranked swimmer in both the 50 free (24.46) and the 100 free (52.50) for the Fresno State women and is second in the 200 free (1:55.63). Lewis hasn't competed the last two weekends, but was expected to be in action this weekend.
Sophomore Rob Rooney (Wrangell) took fifth place in the 100 breaststroke (1:17.93) and was sixth in the 100 butterfly (1:15.33) for Central Washington in a dual meet with the University of Puget Sound on Nov. 11.
Senior captain Chelsea Colliver (Sitka) is the top-ranked swimmer in the 500 free (5:44.55) and the 400 IM (5:23.55) for Linfield College, plus she ranks second in the 200 free (2:09.07), 1,000 free (11:54.19) and the 200 IM (2:27.07). Junior Carly Van Aart (Ketchikan) is also on the team, but won't swim until returning from an overseas trip in January.
Junior Rachael Kirchhoff (Juneau-Douglas) is rowing in the top women's varsity eight boat at Syracuse University. Syracuse, which Kirchhoff helped reach the NCAA national championships last year, finished fourth out of 22 teams at the Foot of the Charles Regatta in Boston on Nov. 11. Earlier this season, Syracuse won the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta in Philadelphia on Oct. 28, despite finishing with a hole in the boat after two collisions with a boat from the University of Pennsylvania. On Oct. 22, Syracuse took fifth place in the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, which is known as the world's largest regatta. Syracuse is using a new training technique this year, where rowers from the eight boats train in pairs (which magnify every technical problem). Kirchhoff and Alicea Kochis won the first two pair trials this season.
Junior Andy Dietrick (Juneau-Douglas) is rowing in the top men's varsity eight boat at Oregon State this year. Dietrick, who helped an OSU four boat finish in the top 10 at the American Rowing Coaching Association's national championships last year, helped the eight take this place in Head of the Lake Regatta Nov. 12 at Lake Washington in Seattle. The Beavers also took second place in the Lake Oswego/Oaks Park races Nov. 4 in Portland.
Sophomore Katy Rue (Juneau-Douglas) is rowing at Dartmouth College this year. She rowed in the women's freshman/novice eight boat last year, but this year is rowing in one of Dartmouth's two second varsity boats.
Freshman Kaleb Froehlich (Juneau-Douglas) is rowing for the University of Southern California's men's club program. Froehlich, who lettered in both basketball and soccer, is rowing in USC's freshman/novice A boat, which finished second in the Head of the Marina 2000 Regatta on Nov. 11 in Marina Del Rey, Calif.
Sophomore Seth Wilson (Juneau-Douglas) is wrestling at 197 pounds for Southern Oregon, as is freshman 149-pounder Gary Reid (Juneau-Douglas). Neither wrestler had a record through SOU's first few meets.
Junior Josh Bonk (Juneau-Douglas) is wrestling at 141 pounds for Pacific University, while freshman Orion Bloom (Juneau-Douglas) is also on the roster. Junior Karl Jordan (Sitka), who was one of Pacific's top wrestlers last year, so far has not seen action for the Boxers this season.
Junior Jasen Bennie (Ketchikan) is wrestling at 197 pounds for Pacific Lutheran now that the football team is no longer in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Sophomore Kevin Stell of Juneau (Alyeska Central School) is on the men's alpine ski team at the University of Colorado, which won three straight NCAA national ski championships before taking second place last year. Stell, a former World Juniors competitor for the United States, trained with the Buffaloes last season but wasn't eligible to compete.
Junior Lindsay Bloom (Juneau-Douglas) is on the Whitman College women's snowboard team. Bloom boarded for Whitman when it won last year's U.S. Collegiate Snowsport Association national championships, the first year snowboarders joined the skiers.
Juneau resident Sarah Fischer, who graduated from Rowmark Academy in Utah last year, is taking a year off to train in Park City, Utah, then plans to attend the University of Colorado next season. Fischer was recently ranked 25th overall among the country's top junior alpine ski racers by Ski Racing magazine and was 18th in downhill and 20th in slalom. She attended training camps in Park City, Mammoth Mountain (Calif.), Mount Hood (Ore.) and in Chile this summer.
Sophomore Nicole Beraldi (Ketchikan) is competing at 114 pounds for seven-time defending women's national collegiate champion Louisiana Tech Iron Dawgs. Beraldi set the school's bench press record in her weight class last year as a freshman, benching 145 pounds, and her combined total of 716.50 pounds for the three main lift types ranks 15th all time at the school (using the Wilkes Formula that takes into account body weight). Beraldi was one of six female lifters at Louisiana Tech to win an individual national championship last year at the USA National Collegiate Powerlifting Championships in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Freshman catcher Garrett Schoenberger (Juneau-Douglas) was the only one of 30 walk-on players to make the Arizona State baseball team in tryouts this fall. Schoenberger is currently the third-string catcher and will most likely redshirt since the starting catcher, Casey Myers, was last year's Pac 10 player of the year.
Sophomore lefthanded pitcher Chad Bentz (Juneau-Douglas) has been awarded a scholarship as he begins his second season at Long Beach State. Bentz pitched for Long Beach State as a walk-on last year, but was offered a scholarship this summer by defending NCAA national champion Louisiana State. He decided to stay at Long Beach State after the school made its scholarship offer.
Senior third baseman Rob Conway (Juneau-Douglas) is back at Iowa State University after leading the team in home runs and RBIs last year.
Senior pitcher-first baseman Joel Cladouhos (Juneau-Douglas) is back at Grinnell College this season.
According to Juneau-Douglas coach Jim Ayers, pitcher-third baseman Casey Walker is at Olympic Community College this year while first baseman-designated hitter Brian Heimbigner and second baseman Robb Travis are both at Shasta Junior College. Outfielder Kelly Pajinag is playing football at Shasta.
Senior first baseman-catcher Heidi Brown (Juneau-Douglas) has been selected as team captain at Oregon Institute of Technology. Her former teammate, sophomore second baseman-shortstop Kara Lindley (Juneau-Douglas), transferred from OIT to Biola this year to play softball.
The Juneau Empire's College Corner feature runs once or twice a month and highlights athletes from Southeast Alaska at their various schools around the country. It is compiled by sports editor Charles Bingham from college Web sites and tips from local readers. If you know of a local athlete who should be included in College Corner, please e-mail the information to firstname.lastname@example.org (no attachments, please) or you can fax it to 1-907-586-3028, attention sports.