By BEN JOHNSON
Dave Slifer hit the nail on the head. When his Central Missouri club ventured through Tahlequah in December, he summarized his first-ever excursion through Northeastern State University.
"I've heard all the horror stories," he said, "and they're all true. It's no fun to play here."
There's a reason for that. His name is Randy Gipson.
In his 15th season as the NSU women's basketball coach, Gipson has made life miserable for visiting teams for a decade and a half.
And this year might be his best coaching effort to date.
Think about it.
Taylor Lewis, Tosha Tyler and Sarah Green all graduated from last year's team. That meant Gipson's two best scoring threats (Lewis and Tyler) and one of his best rebounders (Green) would no longer be able to slip a uniform on.
That was already a mountain to climb before the 2013-2014 season started. The roster misfortune didn't stop there, though.
Before the current season was underway, Gipson and Co. lost Taylor Collins, Lexie Lewis and Laura Reel to various health issues. Then a balky knee forced Melissa Jones to call it quits after nine games this season.
That left Gipson with nine active players on the roster. Only one is a senior (Carrington Fox) and four (Jamie Jackson, Courtney Cowan, Che'Ron Lewis, Mya Walker) are freshmen.
Has it hampered the ability of Gipson's teams to win games? Absolutely not.
Sure, NSU is only 9-8 overall and 6-4 in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. But considering all the variables, that's remarkable.
But that's Randy Gipson, for you. He's a master at his craft. It's undeniable.
Don't believe me? Just look at what he's done over the past week.
First came an upset of No. 23 Fort Hays State on two late free throws by sophomore guard Kate Bellamy.
Then No. 2 Emporia State was next up on the docket. The Hornets had faced little resistance in building up to a 17-0 record. Well, they headed back to Emporia, Kan., on Wednesday night with a 17-1 record after Gipson's team throttled them, 59-44.
And it was a true Randy Gipson — and assistant coach Matt Cole — game plan: lots of halfcourt offense and hellacious defense from everyone on the roster.
"Our kids did a good job tonight of paying attention to the game plan and going out and playing hard," Gipson said after the game. Then when asked about the game's most valuable player, he added, "The team is the most valuable defensive player."
That's the way it is on Gipson's teams; every player sets aside personal achievements in order to reach the common goal of winning.
And there's still more than a month to go during the regular season, but Gipson should be the league's Coach of the Year to this point. Sure, the RiverHawks aren't leading the league — sitting in seventh right now — but what they've accomplished is nothing short of amazing.
The roster keeps dwindling and the obstacles are becoming larger but all Gipson's teams do is win games.
Other MIAA coaches know it. Before the season started, there was every reason to vote the NSU women toward the bottom in both of the preseason polls. Instead, the RiverHawks were at No. 6 in both the media and coaches' polls.
Why? Randy Gipson. That's why.
He may not ultimately be named the league's top coach for the 2013-2014 season. But he should.
Gipson is approaching the 300-win threshold at NSU, and he's taken seven teams to the NCAA tournament. But his coaching performance this season may be his best one yet.