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'ray Of Hope

McHugh Came Out of Retirement to Lead StingRays to the Brink of ABL Championship

March 11, 1998|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long, drafty bus rides, aboard the Blue Goose . . .

Four to a room, in cheap hotels . . .

Five bucks in meal money--for all three meals . . .

Buying your own uniforms and washing them yourself . . .

Buying your own shoes . . .

No, these are not someone's recollections of a long-ago summer in minor league baseball.

They are what Maura McHugh remembers of what passed for big-time women's college basketball, when she played at Old Dominion in the early 1970s, traveling aboard a bus dubbed the Blue Goose through Virginia and North Carolina.

In 1993, she thought her basketball life was over when she resigned as coach of the Arizona State women's team.

But Maura McHugh's basketball life is back, and it has been memory time for her. Her Long Beach StingRays are one victory from closing out defending American Basketball League champion Columbus in the best-of-five championship series and McHugh, 44, would be the obvious recipient of the coaching-comeback-of-the-year award, if anyone offered one.

At Old Dominion, she and two teammates were the first American women athletes to receive full basketball scholarships. The others are Cindy Russo, now the women's coach at Florida International University, and Wendy Larry, the women's coach at Old Dominion.

McHugh became the women's coach at Oklahoma in 1981, staying seven seasons, followed by seven more at Arizona State. There, tired of tiny recruiting budgets and what she said were broken administrative promises, she left.

"When I left Arizona State, I didn't think I'd ever get back into coaching," she said.

"I was happy in private business. I had a very creative job."

Then, last summer, while vacationing in Maine with her husband, Greg Olson, the phone rang.

It was Bill McGillis, who had just been named general manager of the StingRays, the ABL's expansion team. He was looking for a coach. He and ABL officials had interviewed and had been turned down by three others--Marian Washington of Kansas, Sonja Hogg of Baylor and Linda Hargrove of Wichita State.

McHugh and McGillis had never met, but McGillis, as assistant athletic director at the University of Houston, had known women who had played and coached for McHugh.

McHugh and McGillis eventually got together, she was hired and left her post as a coordinator of Arizona liquor-law seminars for hotel and restaurant managers.

When the season began, Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer was asked what she remembered about McHugh as a Pac-10 coach.

"The thing I never figured out about her was why she always took her purse to the bench," VanDerveer said.

Answer: Fear of locker room burglars.

And sure enough, at a game at San Jose early this season, the Long Beach locker room was burgled. Everyone lost something except the coach.

The StingRays finished with the third-best record in the nine-team ABL, then knocked Colorado and Portland out of the playoffs.

McHugh's best player, Yolanda Griffith, talked about her coach the other day.

"We had a coach who had been out of it for four years and who knew nothing about us," she said. "We had some sore knees and we'd never played together.

"First, she established her leadership with us, in a quiet kind of way, and she kept us focused all season. She did the best job with this team any coach could have done."

Griffith also said the players believe McHugh either has a world-class shoe repairman, or buys world-class shoes. Her trademark move in reaction to a bad official's call is to kick the floor.

"We were convinced that eventually she'd lose a heel in a game, but she never did," Griffith said.

Said teammate Beverly Williams, "No one expected this, a first-year coach taking a first-year team to the championship series. A lot of us had played pro ball [overseas] but she had never coached it. She's done a great job.

"I think part of it is her work ethic. I can't believe how much video she watches. She's a 24-hour, tape-watching machine, even on her days off. So when she talks to us about other teams' tendencies, we know that she knows what she's talking about."

First, though, McHugh had to get a grip on her own team's tendencies.

In the 44-game regular season, her talented, deep team never figured out how to play at a consistently high level. Said one ABL coach: "If Long Beach at some point had won 10 or 12 in a row, no one in the league would have been surprised. But they never did, and that surprises me."

The StingRays' longest streak was four. Bad games were too common, roughly a third of the total.

Finally, in the playoffs, after a stinker of a loss--88-68--at Colorado, McHugh had had enough.

"This team likes playing the games and doesn't like to practice," she said.

"After the loss at Colorado, I challenged them. I think I convinced them it was our wake-up call. Playoff basketball means tremendous efforts, every time out--and that that includes the practices too."

Since then Long Beach defeated Colorado, 92-61, closed out Portland in two in a row, 72-62 and 70-69, and has beaten the Quest, 65-62 and 71-61.

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