Amy Hughes, NCAA.com

The Gallaudet women’s basketball program is off to its best start in program history. With senior All-America candidate Easter Faafiti leading the way and a No. 19 ranking in the USA Today ESPN Division III Coaches Poll, the Bison have their eye on the North Eastern Athletic Conference title and an NCAA Tournament bid.

The Bison (18-0, 15-0 NEAC) are guided by head coach Kevin Cook, who is in his fourth year at Gallaudet.

“This is a special group and a special season here at Gallaudet University,” said Cook. “Obviously, we’re very happy with the results but I think that those results are a product of hard work and the commitment that this particular group has shown.

“The specialness comes from a couple things. One, the leadership of our two seniors, Easter Faafiti and Nukeitra Hayes. They’ve done a fabulous job of keeping everything in perspective. Next has been the overall commitment of the team. I’m not saying that each and every practice has been fantastic, because they haven’t. But they’ve tried to work through and understand that even on the down days they get after it as best they can for that day.”

One of the big changes for the Bison this season has played a big role in their scheduling.

That this is not a hearing culture. It’s not a deaf culture. This is a winning culture...
-- Easter Faafiti

“It was an institutional decision for us to leave the Capital Athletic Conference and go into the NEAC,” said Cook. “We are very happy that we left the CAC on a high note in that women’s basketball qualified for the conference tournament (top-6 qualify) for the first time since 2006-07. That was a great accomplishment last season.”

Last season, the Bison posted their best record in a decade at 14-12 with a 7-9 CAC record that was its best in over 10 years. Faafiti earned CAC Player of the Year honors, as well as WBCA and D3hoops.com All-America honors among others.

The move to the NEAC meant that 22 of GU’s 25 available games would be consumed by league play, leaving just three spots up to Cook’s scheduling decisions.

“Two of those three games took place in our tournament,” said Cook. “In one of those, we were able to beat (current No. 10) Lebanon Valley in a great game. We’ve shown that we can compete on a national level and we hope to be able to show that again in the national tournament.”

The change in leagues has also drastically increased the Bisons’ travel time, something Faafiti points to as a reason for their success.

“We’re becoming very very close, like a tight-knit family,” said Faafiti. “It’s because our road games are so far away. We’re typically on the road for seven or eight hours, we’re playing back-to-back, and we’re not going to drive that far of a distance to lose, so we play hard.”

Cook points to the rich tradition of the Gallaudet program rather than the successes he has had since becoming the school’s first full-time women’s basketball coach prior to the 2007-08 season.

“This program went to the Sweet Sixteen in the 1998-99 season, led by Ronda Jo Miller,” said Cook. “Coach Kitty Baldridge was here for 29 years. We’re just trying to get back to have that same level of consistency year in and year out. I don’t want it to be a one-year wonder here at Gallaudet.”

Faafiti has a very clear opinion on the foundation that is the base for this season’s success.

“I’m going to remember what Coach told us,” Faafiti said. “That this is not a hearing culture. It’s not a deaf culture. This is a winning culture. That woke me up inside because people on the outside don’t care what we are, so it’s all about winning. That’s what people really care about.”

Faafiti has become a perfect fit with the Gallaudet program since transferring in from Pasadena City College in her home state of California.

“Coach Cook is like my dad,” said Faafiti. “He’s like my father on the east coast because my family is on the west coast. He has actually taught me a lot of things I never knew or realized about basketball, or had even heard of before Coach Cook sat down and explained them to me. If I need to work on certain things, he’ll be more than happy to take the time to work with me. He has high expectations, so he’s willing to sit down with any of us.”

“Easter’s mother did not want her to leave the state of California, so it took a bit of convincing to get her here,” remembers Cook. “[Easter] has made a great impact here because she came from a winning program. She already had established a standard of work habits and when your best players are also your best workers, you’re going to have a great level of success.

“Most every practice, [Easter] is kind of our barometer,” said Cook. “As a leader, she’s pushing and encouraging everyone else through. She does a plethora of things well on the basketball court. She rebounds well, she knows what to do on the offensive end down low. She’s the type of player that I have to prod to shoot the ball because she’d just as soon make a great pass that leads to a bucket as make one herself. All of that together makes her a pretty neat person to coach.”

Cook is a hearing coach with a team of deaf and hard of hearing student-athletes. He has worked hard to learn American Sign Language, just as he asks his players to work hard on the court every day.

“I told them early on,” said Cook, “in the first year and a half or two years, I said ‘Look. I’m going to be patient as I teach you the game. You guys be patient as I learn ASL and we’re in this together.’”

That plan has worked. Cook’s ASL has improved along with his team’s record.

“I’m still not fluent in ASL,” Cook offers. “I can get through a practice with no interpreter and I can have one-on-one conversations with my players, and they really slow down their signing so I can read it. They’ve gotten used to the way that I sign. Signing is like a dialect. Everybody’s hands work a little bit different. That’s been a challenge in that I have had to be patient at times with their skill level in the early years and vise versa, they’ve had to be patient with my rudimentary ASL. But it’s getting better. In fact (at Tuesday’s practice) a couple of them said ‘man, you really signed great today, Coach!’ That made me feel good. I need to hear that feedback.”

Cook’s team has spent its season improving on the feedback it has gotten on the competitive court. The win over Lebanon Valley was one of the first big steps down this path of success.

“It was the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve won our own holiday tournament,” said Cook. “It gave the team a boost that yes, we could get some things done. It was an overtime win and a very well-played game. That kind of set the table for what has happened the rest of the season.”

Cook has every intention for his team’s success to continue beyond this season.

“Since day one, we have said that we want to build a program here and not just a team,” said Cook.

The Gallaudet Bison are well on their way to making that intention a reality.