Richard Woodworth was out of his element.
Entering the 2013-2014 season, Woodworth was the only holdover from Western Washington University's 2012 men's basketball national championship team.
Teammates he bonded with over the past two or three seasons - guards John Allen and Rico Wilkins, center Chris Mitchell, and forwards Paul Jones and Cameron Severson - had graduated and moved on.
"It was something I struggled with after last season," Woodworth said in a phone interview. "I lived with John (Allen) and Cam (Severson), they had all been here a long time and were some of my best friends. It was hard losing friends like that, but now we got a whole new group, which I enjoy."
Woodworth knew as one of the Vikings' two returning starters, along with center Austin Bragg, he would be asked to take on a more important role on the court and as a leader. Along with adjusting to his own new role, he'd have to help the team through any growing pains that might arise with a younger, inexperienced group.
"Last year I knew what to expect from day one to the end of the season," Woodworth said. "I knew what John was going to do, I knew where Chris wanted to catch the ball. I had to relearn that with this team, those small details."
The small details were learned on the fly, as Woodworth and the Vikings pushed through the feeling-out phase and were rewarded with a 19-7 record, including going 13-5 in Great Northwest Athletic Conference play. WWU's conference record was good enough to net it the No. 2 seed and a first round bye in the GNAC Tournament, which is March 5-8, at Saint Martin's University in Lacey.
Woodworth seemingly found his role within the team with ease. He was the leading scorer in a game 11 times this season, and shares the team lead of 17.5 points per game with Bragg. Woodworth didn't abandon his traditional role for the Vikings though, as he dished out a team-high 4.0 assists per game and grabbed a team-leading 38 steals.
"I've always called myself a point guard and I pride myself on being a team player, but I'm also confident in my defensive ability," Woodworth said. "The way our team was arranged in the past, we had guys who could score the heck out of the ball. I did defer a little bit, but it wasn't forced, I was fine doing that. I just want to win games whichever way possible. We've gone through cold spots this season and I'm comfortable enough to step up in those cold spots."
Woodworth showed he was comfortable with his role as one of the go-to guys in key moments when he hit a game-winning, half-court shot to defeat rival Central Washington University 94-91 on Feb. 22, at WWU's Carver Gym. Even at the beginning of the season started, Woodworth felt comfortable being the guy to take a big shot at the end of a game, he said.
Woodworth also emerged as a leader for WWU this season, helping guide and encourage younger Vikings like redshirt freshmen Joey Schreiber and Jeffrey Parker. Parker has come into his own as a scorer for WWU, leading the team in scoring in four games and averaging 11.5 points per game. Schreiber also shouldered some of the scoring load, holding an average of 10.8 points per game despite missing a portion of the season with a facial injury.
"I feel like the fact that I'm a senior, that's enough reason for me to feel some sense of responsibility and accountability as a leader," Woodworth said. "And that's not pressure, it's motivation. I try to help in the best way I can. I'm not a super vocal guy on the court ... but I try to lead by example. I try to play the type of basketball Coach (Tony) Dominguez and (former WWU coach Brad) Jackson taught me."
Woodworth pointed to the Vikings' loss in the West Regional Final of the 2010 Division-II National Championship his freshman year as a key motivating moment for his WWU career.
"We hosted the regional and had a lot of seniors, like last year, and we lost in the final in overtime on a buzzer-beater," Woodworth recalled of the game against eventual-champ Cal Poly Pomona. "I didn't play much that season, but I was the only freshman who traveled with the team, so I grew close to those guys. They accepted me and taught me so much. To see those seniors so heartbroken is one of those moments that sticks out in my mind. I used it as motivation to be the best basketball player I can be to make sure I never feel that way."
The Vikings are ranked No. 7 in the most recent West Region poll, and may need to win the GNAC Tournament to ensure a berth to the West Regional. Their journey starts Thursday, March 6, in Lacey when WWU takes on Alaska-Fairbanks.