Oct. 2, 2009

Courtesy The Seattle Times

by Steve Kelley

When they first got together in the fall of 1997, in a dorm room after their first workout, the six women from coach June Daugherty's first full Washington recruiting class decided they needed a nickname.

They were looking for some tag that could be part of the glue that would keep them together through the inevitable highs and lows of their college basketball careers.

The first name they considered, "Six Pack," quickly was voted down, for obvious reasons.

The next suggestion was "S2" for "Sweet Six." That nickname stuck and over the next four seasons, "S2" — Melissa Erickson, Megan Franza, LeAnn Sheets, Sarah Duncan, Jill Pimley and Carli Halpenny — stayed together like sisters, through every success and every failure.

"We had this bond right from the beginning," Pimley said late last week. "We knew even then that, even though people would eventually go their separate ways, we would stay in close touch."

Good teammates don't leave ever. They separate, but they're never apart. They stay together long after the last hurrahs.

There is a unique and enduring quality to the relationships of teammates. There is a bonding kind of sixth sense that comes from all the hours in the gym and all the days in hotels.

It comes from all of the joys and disappointments, the thousands of indelible moments that happen away from the bright lights of game night.

"When you share that much blood, sweat and tears with the same people for four years, there's no way that you can lose sight of them," said Erickson. "We all know what it took to get through all those tough moments. The friendships that develop just kind of come naturally."

Guards Duncan and Pimley said that, on the court, they always knew that post player Erickson had their backs. She was their enforcer, with opponents or with officials. She defended them against ill-tempered elbows and ill-considered calls.

"You don't mess with my teammates," Erickson said. "If you knock them down, then you're probably going to get knocked down too. I just think you stay loyal to the people that you worked so hard with to achieve the same goal. If anybody messed with, especially our core group, I always would be there with them. Always."

Many times, Erickson has said that her teammates wouldn't let her fall and they haven't.

In 2006, just before her 28th birthday, Erickson was diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. In 2007, her teammates, most notably Duncan and Pimley, formed the Melissa Erickson Foundation to help raise money to pay for medical bills and necessary alterations to Erickson's home.

"When we first found out that Mo had this disease, of course we were all in shock," Pimley said. "And the first time we went out to dinner with her after that, Sarah and I got together and told her that we knew there were going to be a lot of financial burdens, but we're going to come up with some kind of financial plan to help her out with that.'"

Next Saturday, the foundation is staging a Ring Around the Needle Pub Crawl. Eight bars that surround the Seattle Center are taking part in the event.

The support and enthusiasm of her friends and teammates who have put in the time to stage an event as complicated as this, is a tribute to Erickson's megawatt personality, but it also is a reminder that teammates endure.

"Just knowing, even though I know that, in my head, I'm fighting this disease, and it can be a pretty lonely, individual battle, I know I'm not the only one fighting this," Erickson said. "It's definitely on the hearts and in the minds of my teammates. I mean, what you share in the locker room and what you share for all those years as teammates, it's indescribable.

"It's just some kind of unspeakable caring. I think it goes back to that loyalty thing. I know they'll never let me fall. Like, we'd never let each other fall in the weight room. If you were in the doghouse one day with the coaches, which I was often, they were always right there to pick you up."

Erickson remembers wanting to quit after one practice. She was so tired and upset, she was throwing up in the parking lot.

"I was done," she said.

But in that parking lot, Duncan, Pimley and Franza told Erickson, "You're not quitting. You're going to get through this."

"Playing on a team is the part where you learn to be teammates, but at the same time, it's where you're learning how to be friends and how to be family," Duncan said. "When you become teammates, you become family.

"Melissa and I grew so close and even as teammates and friends, there's been good times and bad times. There's been tears and there's been laughter, but there's no question in my mind that what we're doing is the right thing to do because she is so likable and she was such a great teammate."

Almost a decade later, and forever more, these teammates will be together, as sweet as "S2."

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com