Long road leads Gray to Evergreen – and happiness

mwochnick@theolympian.comJanuary 24, 2014 

Evergreen redshirt junior forward Brittany Gray (21), shown in a game against Saint Martin’s University in November, is averaging 15.2 points and 9.1 rebounds a game.

TONY OVERMAN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

OLYMPIA — Brittany Gray, one of the best high school girls basketball players to emerge from Kitsap County and once a highly touted Gonzaga recruit, lost her love for basketball at age 18.

Almost five years ago, Gray — now a redshirt junior at The Evergreen State College — was in the Gonzaga women’s basketball program as a splash signee. She verbally committed to the Zags as a high school sophomore, and fans thought they knew the type of player arriving on campus after another Gray — older brother Steven — was in the midst of becoming a 1,000-point scorer for the men from 2007-11.

But the Division I hype isn’t for everyone, and it wasn’t for Brittany. Burnout and unhappiness led to a detour, and that path has taken her to Evergreen, where she’s back in the game.

Earlier this week, the 22-year-old forward earned her second Cascade Collegiate Conference player of the week honors after averaging 22.5 points and 12.5 rebounds during last weekend’s road sweep of Warner Pacific and Concordia (Ore.).

Gray’s spirits are high at Evergreen, and her love for basketball has returned.

“I feel this is the happiest I’ve been since I left high school,” Gray said.

FINDING THE RIGHT PATH

Gray lives near Evergreen’s campus, takes one class per quarter and travels on charter buses to play games on back-to-back nights. The NAIA lifestyle, where a road trip can mean an eight-hour drive, is a drastic change from the bright lights of West Coast Conference hoops and playing for a program that has made five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. In 2011, when Gray would have been a sophomore, the Zags made an Elite Eight run.

At Bainbridge High School, Gray was a go-to player all four years for coach Penny Gienger and became the Spartans’ all-time leading scorer and rebounder. When she signed her letter of intent as a senior in 2008, after verbally committing as a 15-year-old, Gray did so because she thought it was the right thing to do, but she didn’t want to attend Gonzaga.

On Signing Day, Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said of Gray: “She’s certainly one of the best rebounders the state has ever seen, and I am confident that she will continue to be a great rebounder here.”

With brother Steven’s success, there were high expectations and outside pressures on Brittany. In the end, Gonzaga — and, for a brief time, basketball — wasn’t what she wanted. During the fall 2009 term, she left the team and the university, searching for answers.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted basketball to consume all my time,” she said. “I knew that throughout high school.”

With Gienger’s help, Gray landed at Mount Vernon’s Skagit Valley College after a year off from the game. She played there for two years, earning Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges Northern Region MVP honors in the 2011-12 season.

Gienger won 355 games in 21 seasons between Bainbridge and Kingston before retiring from coaching in 2012. She sent multiple players to Skagit Valley over her coaching tenure and even tried to convince Gray that path was for her out of high school. While Steven, now playing in France, and Brittany are two of the all-time greats to come out of Bainbridge, they had different approaches to the sport.

“Brittany was never eat, drink, sleep basketball,” Gienger said. “The path she’s gone (now), that’s more her personality.”

Evergreen coach Monica Heuer didn’t know about Gray’s past history as a Division I signee when she began recruiting Gray. Heuer and Gray had an instant coach-player connection, which made for a smooth transition at NAIA Evergreen.

“This fit her style and what she wanted to accomplish,” Heuer said. “We have very good communication, and that’s something she wanted and needed.”

WHERE SHE WANTS TO BE

Gray is in her first season in a Geoducks uniform after taking a medical redshirt a year ago because of a torn right Achilles tendon. She’s already one of the most productive forwards in the CCC.

Gray is averaging 15.2 points and 9.1 rebounds a game, both of which rank third best in the conference on an Evergreen squad that’s 8-8 overall (4-5 CCC) entering a homestand Friday against Northwest Christian and Saturday against Corban.

Gray is the first to admit her college basketball path hasn’t been the smoothest, but she has no regrets. The venture has shaped her for the better.

And that love for basketball? It’s back where it once was.

“I’ve gotten a lot stronger as a person,” she said. “I used to care what everyone thought, and that affected me.

“It’s been a rough few years, but I love my coaches, and I love my teammates. Evergreen is really cool. It’s an all-around good experience.”

Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 mwochnick@theolympian.com theolympian.com/southsoundsports @MegWochnick mwochnick@theolympian.com

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