Central Arizona College looks like anything but the home of a basketball dynasty. The campus is in remote desert country between Coolidge and Casa Grande, about 40 miles south of Phoenix. Cotton fields adjoin the school on three sides. On the fourth is the Gila River Indian Reservation. Scorpions find their way into dorm rooms, and students strolling among the white stucco buildings may find themselves face to face with a javelina, a small wild boar.
Lin Laursen arrived at Central on a hot summer day in 1971. She had a master's degree in physical education from Arizona State and a pressing need for the job she had recently accepted as women's basketball coach. "I looked around and thought, where the hell am I?" says Laursen. "I had to ask people what a vaquera was."
Once Laursen learned that vaquera—the feminine version of the school nickname—is Spanish for female cowboy, she went to work to make sure everyone else knew, too. From 1974, when the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference began overseeing women's sports, through the end of last season, the Vaqueras had the most successful junior college program in the state, with a record of 379-82. Their conference record over the same period was 230-22, including a four-year streak without a loss. Last season the Vaqueras won the National Junior College Athletic Association tournament.
"No one was shocked that we won the championship," says Central's athletic director, George Young. "Lin had been winning for so long, we all thought it was a matter of time."
Laursen, 46, is a kind of female Bob Knight—intense, driven, demanding. "In my early days here, I couldn't get out of bed after a loss," says Laursen. "Even when I'm playing H-O-R-S-E with the kids, I want to win. I don't handle losing well."
In 1983 the Vaqueras suffered a late-season defeat that kept them out of the national tournament. Laursen was so upset that she took off for Nevada to play blackjack. "I went to lose myself in the cards," she says.
Laursen was paged while at the tables and told she had won the Converse Coach of the Year Award for women's junior colleges, the first year the award was given. She wasn't happy. "How could I be, if we weren't going to the nationals?" she says.
Laursen's passion for winning draws complaints from opposing coaches, who say she runs up the score. "You can be down by 50, and the pressure is still coming," says Bike Medder, the coach at Scottsdale Community College. "She takes no prisoners."
Last season the Vaqueras beat Pima Community College 131-21. Pima coach Susie Pulido says the defeat was a humiliating experience, particularly for her players. "My goal is to beat Lin Laursen," says Pulido. "Even if have to be out there in a wheelchair. And I hope I can be classy about it, not beat her the way she has beat us."
Laursen says she doesn't know what running up the score means. "Do I teach players to throw the ball away?" she says. "We do what we have to do to get better. I don't care what the score is, I'm still yelling." Furthermore, Laursen says she would never risk injuring her starters just to mortify the competition.
Laursen grew up on a farm in Royal, Iowa. "You don't understand the meaning of work until you get up at six a.m. in 20-degrees-below weather and feed 300 cows," says Laursen. Basketball was her release, and she excelled at it. She remembers losing a filling during a high school game. She packed the tooth with aspirin, held the aspirin in place with a wad of gum and scored 55 points.
After that, newspapers started calling her "poker-faced." She laughs at the memory, saying she was afraid to smile because the gum might pop out. "But to this day when I step onto the court, the mask of intensity goes on," she says.
Her day still begins at 6 a.m. and doesn't end until late at night, often leaving no time for other activities, like eating. Laursen has one meal a day. "I know it's stupid," she says. "But I'm careful to eat from the three food groups—canned, fast and frozen."
Team workouts reflect Laursen's intensity. Drills include what players call "dawn patrol"—early morning runs up the mountain trails around campus. "When I got here I thought she was crazy, working us as hard as she does," says Bridget Pettis, a freshman from East Chicago, Ind. "But that's what you have to do to be national champion."
Suzette Sargeant, a sophomore from Santa Ana, Calif., says Laursen is a real motivator. "I don't know how she does it, but she's always up," says Sargeant. "She could get us going at four in the morning."
Unlike some conference members, who recruit only within their county, Laursen can go after players from around the country. Last year's team had only three players from Arizona. Central also has a hefty scholarship budget. "Lin recruits like a bulldog, " says Young. "She refuses to give up on anyone."
The Vaqueras' reputation helps, too. Coaches of Division I programs often refer to Central those recruits who don't meet the academic standards of their schools or who need seasoning. Out-of-state recruits must adjust to more than Laursen's work ethic. August temperatures near Casa Grande can reach 112°. "When I first tried to run, it felt like I couldn't breathe," says Sharon Hargrove, a sophomore from Compton, Calif.
Last year Hargrove encountered something else she would never find in California. One night she was on campus, chatting with three friends when six javelinas appeared out of the darkness. The students froze, hoping the critters wouldn't notice them. But the javelinas spotted the students and charged, making snorting noises as they headed straight for them. "I had to jump over a brick wall to get away," says Hargrove. "This place takes some getting used to."
Even so, most players stick it out. Laursen is particularly proud of the number of players she has placed at four-year schools with basketball scholarships—52 since 1974. Last year a Central hoopster went to Duke, which had never taken a J.C. woman basketball transfer before. Three went to PAC-10 schools in 1986, two to Nebraska.
On her current squad, Laursen has seven freshmen, which isn't unusual. She says coaching at the J.C. level is like riding a treadmill. "Every year you have turnover. Every year you recruit, rebuild, reload," she says.
This season Central is once again the team everyone wants to knock off. "I don't predict we'll win the nationals again," says Laursen. "When you play freshmen, on any given night you can get gray hair. But we'll work hard. We're a little shot that keeps on shooting."
Leo Banks, a writer living in Tucson, has written several stories for "Sports Illustrated."
The Vaqueras' romp over Phoenix College this season did nothing to minimize the coach's reputation for running up the score.
When Laursen arrived at Central Arizona 18 years ago, she thought, Where the hell am I?