Westermann returns under trying circumstances

Former SK standout Kaileigh Westermann is making her mark for Willamette University in a difficult season. - Jesse Beals/Staff Photo
Former SK standout Kaileigh Westermann is making her mark for Willamette University in a difficult season.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/Staff Photo

Former SK hoops star’s game at PLU her first since the mid-season death

of team’s coach.

She remembers Bruce Henderson stopping a drill and gathering the team around.

This was routine for the fourth-year Willamette University women’s basketball coach. It’s a game of chess on the hardwood — counters and corrections.

No different than usual.

South Kitsap High School graduate Kaileigh Westermann, now a freshman at Willamette, had an up-close view of her coach at that Dec. 8 practice. With just eight players on the roster, everyone did. During the critique, she noticed Henderson briefly pause before telling his players that he was “lightheaded.”

He then took two steps and collapsed.

Henderson, 47, died later that day of an apparent heart attack. Westermann said the team was informed that night.

“That was just a complete shock, and I feel lucky to have everyone around me so we could share the process together,” she said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.”

Westermann, a standout defender for the Wolves, considered playing soccer at the collegiate level, but decided to send video clips from basketball season to some West Coast colleges. One of those was Willamette, and after a visit with Henderson, Westermann committed to playing for the Bearcats.

“That’s all coach,” said assistant coach Anne Lapray, who now guides the team along with acting coach Sara Brooks. “He always put the person before the player.”

Willamette was coming off consecutive 5-20 seasons, but Westermann was excited about the program’s potential. The Bearcats are young — half of the team is freshmen, and there are just two seniors and no juniors on the roster.

But after Henderson’s death, the Bearcats canceled nonconference games against Corban College and the Oregon Institute of Technology. They didn’t practice again until Dec. 26 and returned to competition for the first time in 25 days with a 88-46 loss Dec. 29 against Concordia University of Portland.

“Anne stepping in has been so great,” Westermann said. “We’re really blessed to have her because we were really out of shape when we came back.”

She said her teammates “are motivated to prove everyone wrong” and succeed this season. The Bearcats played again Friday and saw their record fall to 1-6 with a 62-52 loss at Pacific Lutheran. Westermann converted 2 of 3 field goals for four points.

“We were more prepared and confident that we could play our game,” she said.

Several South girls basketball players made the 35-mile drive from Port Orchard to watch Westermann play. Tori Fairweather, a senior who played two sports with Westermann, presented her with a school T-shirt signed by the soccer team. And Westermann returned to her alma mater to watch a girls basketball game before the holidays.

“I love everyone on that team,” she said.

Westermann feels the same about her new teammates. She rooms with another freshman, point guard Dayna Jandoc, from Honolulu. The two enjoy watching “The Office” when they aren’t studying — Westermann is an environmental-science major — or playing basketball.

“She’s always positive,” Jandoc said. “She never gives up.”

It’s a mentality that Westermann said has helped her cope through “kind of a rough year.”

Westermann said life has provided her with plenty of opportunities and few challenges.

She said her greatest hardship before Henderson’s death was a dislocated left knee playing basketball that prematurely ended her junior season at South.

She credits those within the program and university with helping them through the loss of their coach.

“It was really tragic to lose him because we were so close,” she said. “It was devastating. We’ve been really lucky that we were so tight because that helped us stick together and play basketball.”

Lapray praised the team’s maturity throughout the situation. She said Westermann’s demeanor makes it easier to go to practice because of “coachability and enthusiasm.”

“As soon as she gets a few more minutes and conditioning back, she’s a player who can make an impact,” she said, adding that Westermann has strong ball skills in addition to the ability to play the low post. “She understands the game really well.”

Perhaps now as much off the court as on it.

“Coach had that personality that you know he would want us to continue,” Westermann said. “We just keep him in our hearts and it helps us to push forward.”

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