POCATELLO, IDAHO - It seems no matter where Jessica Schutt goes, she's a winner.
Schutt, a Sunnyside High School hoop standout in the early 1990's who went on to star for the University of Oregon women's basketball team, is now coaching at Idaho State University. Not so surprising, Schutt's Bengals are heading for an NIT first round showdown with powerful Iowa State.
It is only the second time in Idaho State University history that its women's basketball team has qualified for a postseason tournament. The first time was in 2001, when the Lady Bengals won the Big Sky Conference and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship Tournament.
Schutt is in the first year of her contract as an assistant coach, serving under Idaho State University head coach Jon Newlee. She accepted the varsity assistant coaching position after serving one year as the head coach of the Tacoma Community College women's basketball team. Schutt's Tacoma Titans, who were 12-9 the year before Schutt came on board, finished the regular season with a 20-5 mark. Her Titans won the league title, earning a berth into the NWACC Championship Tournament. The Tacoma school hadn't qualified for the NWACC tourney 17 years prior to Schutt coming on board. Because of the Titans' success, Schutt was selected by her peers as the NWACC coach of the year last season.
A similar turnaround occurred this season at Idaho State University. The Bengals finished at 6-20 last season in Newlee's first year as head coach. This season, with Schutt at his side, Idaho State has amassed 20 victories compared with only eight losses.
The difference in Idaho State's record from the 2002-03 season to this season is the second biggest turnaround among all NCAA Division I schools this year. Only the University of North Carolina at Asheville women's basketball team has improved at a better clip, upping its 2002-03 mark of 3-25 to 19-9 in 2003-04.
Schutt credits the dramatic improvement by the Idaho State team to the leadership of Newlee. She said the turnaround is probably a combination of the fine job Newlee did in recruiting seven new players to the Lady Bengals program, and the philosophy Newlee has established with the team. Schutt also notes that Newlee's motion offense has added zip and excitement to the Idaho State game plan, explaining that the new offense was designed with the players who were on board in mind.
Now 30 years old, Schutt was the first Sunnyside High School female basketball player to score more than 1,000 points during her prep career. There have been only two Lady Grizzlies since then to have accomplished that feat. Schutt, who was named the MVP of the Class 2A State tournaments both her junior and senior years in high school, went on to star for the University of Oregon women's hoop team. As a junior, she led the Pac-10 in free throw shooting accuracy by sinking more than 83 percent of her shots from the charity stripe. Schutt also set the University of Oregon school record for 3-point field goals made during a single game, when she bombed in eight treys against USC.
Following her collegiate playing days, Schutt went on to serve as an assistant coach at St. Martin's College. A year later, she accepted the head assistant's job at Montana State/Northern, staying with the women's basketball program there for four years until deciding to get away from basketball. A couple of seasons away from the game was all it took to convince Schutt to return to coaching. When the Tacoma Community College head coach's position became her's for the taking, she got back into basketball at the start of the 2002-03 season.
Now, Schutt and company at little noticed Idaho State University are heading off to Iowa State University as decided underdogs.
"It's definitely going to be a challenge," Schutt said of drawing Iowa State as a first round opponent in this year's National Invitation Tournament (NIT).
"We just got through playing in the Big Sky Conference championship game in front of 5,200 people. There'll be 12,000 people at our NIT game this coming Wednesday at Iowa State," Schutt said.
"They will definitely provide us with a challenge," she said of the Big 12 Conference school.
An upset victory over Iowa State this Wednesday would propel the Idaho State Lady Bengals into an NIT second round match-up against the winner of the Xavier and Miami of Ohio game that is also being played this week.
Whatever the outcome of tomorrow's NIT contest, Schutt said her first year being involved with the Lady Bengals hoop program has been a positive experience.
"I love it here," she said of the Pocatello area. "I thoroughly enjoy working with the coaching staff here at Idaho State, as well as the players on the team.
"It's a super place to be, a great place to work," Schutt added.
And, of course, there are the fringe benefits. Like this week's all-expenses paid trip to Iowa State University.