March 7, 2023
How Charlisse Leger-Walker went from New Zealand to a Pac-12 title
'The vision was: let's turn this program around'
LAS VEGAS — As the buzzer sounded, Charlisse Leger-Walker threw the ball in the air and ran back towards her bench, looking for someone to hug. She found fellow junior Jessica Clarke, who picked her up and embraced her. Leger-Walker had just helped do something that had never been done before in Washington State athletics history, win a Pac-12 championship. However, the journey for Leger-Walker to help lead the Cougs started a long time ago and over 7,000 miles away.
Leger-Walker is from Waikato, New Zealand. She is one of three daughters of Eliu and Leanne Leger-Walker. From an early age, basketball has been a part of her life. Her mom was a member of the New Zealand national team, the Tall Ferns, and played in both the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. So it came as no surprise when she started playing basketball. Leger-Walker learned from her mom, who was her coach from a young age through high school. She quickly grew into one of the best players in New Zealand, even playing for the national team when she was just 16 years old.
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“I love being a kiwi, I love being from New Zealand,” Charlisse Leger-Walker told the Next. “The support that I have back home is insane. I don’t think people realize but the New Zealand community is very, very huge for me. I’m definitely proud of my heritage and a Maori which is native to New Zealand. So that is also a big factor in why I’d love to represent so much and I just want to kind of inspire you know, the next generation from New Zealand to kind of show them that anything is possible, whether it’s basketball or not. But if you come from a country that has 5 million people and to be able to do something like this on this type of world stage, it’s amazing.”
After becoming one of the best players in New Zealand, Leger-Walker decided to follow in the footsteps of her older sister Krystal and play college basketball in the United States. Her older sister had started her college career at Northern Colorado, under now-Washington State head coach Kamie Ethridge. Ethridge and her staff had only learned about Krystal through a video of her playing that was emailed to them. When they went over to New Zealand watch the older Leger-Walker sister play is when they first saw Charlisse and just how good she could be. However, at the time, they weren’t in the position to recruit her.
Ethridge and her staff understood that Charlisse was too good to play at the mid-major level and Northern Colorado. However, after Ethridge and Krystal helped lead Northern Colorado to a Big Sky championship and NCAA tournament appearance in 2018, Ethridge was offered the job at Washington State. She accepted the job, but it came at a cost as she had told the Leger-Walker family she wouldn’t leave Northern Colorado while Krystal was there.
Upon arriving at Washington State, Ethridge and her staff reached out to the Leger-Walker family to apologize about leaving Crystal and thought all was lost. Ethridge knew they were finally at the level that Charlisse could play at but felt they had burned the bridge with the family. However, that wasn’t the case and the family asked if they could add an official visit to Washington State on their trip to take an official visit at Texas. The staff said of course and got the Leger-Walkers on campus.
“When I was being recruited by Laurie and Coach E, the vision was: let’s turn this program around,” said Charlisse. “Let’s do something that hasn’t been done before. And you have an opportunity to be a part of that and be a part of that success that obviously Bella was talking about that we’ve had. For me, that was really exciting. A lot of people have the chance to go to programs that are already great. They’re already on the map. You are going to be a part of the team and people already know about you and everything like that. But I think this opportunity in itself was so special because we were so irrelevant, you could say. Nobody was talking about us at all.”
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She didn’t decide right away, and in that time Krystal decided to transfer from Northern Colorado and ended up transferring to Washington State. During Krystal’s redshirt year, Leger-Walker decided to commit to play at Washington State and join her sister for one season in Pullman.
That freshman year for Leger-Walker was incredible. She averaged 19 points a game, five rebounds and three assists. She and her sister helped lead the Cougs to the programs first NCAA tournament appearance in over 30 years. She won Pac-12 freshman of the year and was named a USBWA All-American honorable mention.
Due to the NCAA allowing players who played in the 2020-21 season to have an extra year of eligibility, her sister got one more season in Pullman and they made history together once again her sophomore year. They led the Cougs to the most wins in program history in the NCAA era, at the time. They also led them to their first ever back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. However, none of that compares to where she has led Washington State this season.
“I personally don’t think Charlisse has gotten much better in the sense that she was a stud when she walked in,” said Kamie Ethridge. “We didn’t have as many pieces around her, but IQ-wise, leadership, maturity, voice in the locker room, there was just character across the table. You just never have to spend one second on any of that. She’s just high character in everything that she does, grades, with her professors. She’s just an amazing student-athlete. She didn’t have to change. She just walked into what she really is as a leader and her voice and directing and coaching and coaching me and telling me what needs to be done. And I just, I’m just as fortunate as could be to be able to coach her.”
Coming into her junior year, the Cougars’ roster was pretty much the same. The one major change was the graduation of the older Leger-Walker sister, Krystal, a vocal leader of the team and a great defender. Someone was going to need to step up and fill that role. It wasn’t hard to find someone to do this — Charlisse had always had a strong leadership voice and now it was her turn to lead Washington State.
The Cougars got off to a strong start, winning seven of their first eight games. Then, in their first Pac-12 game of the year, they lost at Washington 82-66. However, in that game Leger-Walker scored a career-high 40 points with seven made three pointers. They won their next three games and then something very unexpected happened.
During Washington State’s first full weekend of Pac-12 play, Leger-Walker had to return home. Her grandmother had fallen ill, and she went home to see her. The Cougs lost those two games without her. She returned and the team won their next three Pac-12 games. However, it was during this time that Leger-Walker learned her grandmother had passed away. She once again flew all the way back to New Zealand to be with her family. It was an incredibly difficult time for Leger-Walker, but the support she got from her team and coaches helped get her through it.
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“I think just that whole period — after Christmas I also went home,” said Leger-Walker. “She was sick, so I went and visited her. That was the second time I went home. But, yeah, it was a lot for me. Obviously, very close with her, but I’m just grateful that I got to go home. Again, that’s part of the reason why I came to this program because Coach E and her staff, they treat you as people first and there was no way they were obviously going to stop me from going home. The girls, before they — in that locker room after that game, Ula said, We all have your back, we love you, go home do what you need, stay as long as you need, and then like obviously don’t worry about us, at the end of the day, you’re a human first, that type of thing, and you need to go and be with your family.”
After returning from New Zealand, Leger-Walker helped lead Washington State to a 6-4 record, including two wins over ranked Arizona and UCLA teams. This put the team at 9-9 in Pac-12 play and a seven seed in the Pac-12 tournament. Leger-Walker finished the season averaging 18 points, six rebounds and four assists. She set career highs in points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage, three-point percentage and free throw percentage. She was named an All-Pac 12 selection as well as to the Naismith Award Midseason Watch List.
“I mean, it’s been a lot and get coming into college out of high school is hard, especially as an international student,” said Leger-Walker. “You have to become more independent. You have to look after yourself on the basketball court. It’s an entirely different step up than high school is and especially for me, coming from New Zealand. Coming and playing against college players, amazing college players who are athletes, especially in the Pac 12 is so tough. I think personally, for me, it’s just maturing and the fact that every day you step out on the court, you have to be good, you can’t take days off. You have to do extra work in the gym, things like that.”
Heading into the Pac-12 tournament, Washington State was safely in the NCAA tournament, but no one was picking them to win the Pac-12 tournament. The Cougars had never made it past the semifinals and lost last year in their first game of the tournament as a three seed.
This March was different. The Cougars beat Cal, Utah, Colorado, and UCLA on their way to their first-ever Pac-12 championship. In fact, it was the first ever Pac-12 championship in any women’s sport in Washington State history.
The wins in the Pac-12 tournament came on the back of the outstanding play of Leger-Walker. In the game against California, she scored 23 points. Against Utah, she hit the dagger three with 15 seconds left to seal the win over the-then #3 Utes. She scored 15 points in the semifinal win against Colorado and topped that with 23 points in the championship game victory of UCLA. For all these strong performances, Leger-Walker was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. She also set the single tournament record for points scored with 76.
“Never would have thought we would be doing that,” said Leger-Walker. “We’ve watched teams do that in the past or especially the last three years. That moment just felt so surreal to get up there, cut down the net, actually soak in that we’re champs. It’s just been such a process. The journey that we’ve been on, especially throughout the season, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs and to come out with this win, this championship, it means so much to so many people. Just so grateful to be a part of that.”
By winning the championship, Leger-Walker helped Washington State check off more firsts in program history. The win over Cal gave the Cougars their first 20-win season in the NCAA era. The win over Utah gave them their first win over an AP top-three team and the win over Colorado gave them five wins over AP top 25 teams this season, the most in program history. Then: a Pac-12 championship.
Throughout the run to the Pac-12 championship, the Cougs have shown that they are a tight knit group that doesn’t care about what others think of them. They have been poised and never backed down from a challenge. A lot of that has to do with the roster they have. They have 13 players on their roster and nine of them are from outside the United States. Leger-Walker is one of those international players and has felt the team and staff have become her second family. They have supported her through everything in her career and made her feel at home in Pullman.
“I think when everyone talks about Charlisse, it’s different because you guys know her basketball and she’s amazing and we all know that,” Ula Motuga said. “But off the court she’s one of the coolest people ever. She just like, she’s just different. She’s a relationship person. I think she knows how to have fun off the court. She knows how to switch on the serious basketball mode Charlisse and then off the court it’s the goofy, won’t stop singing, wants to make TikToks fun Charlisse. I think that’s what she’s really good at is balance. Who she is as a person is a testament to her parents and the way that they raised her, obviously, to be a kind person before anything.”
As the Cougs look towards the NCAA tournament, they will once again ride on the shoulders of Leger-Walker. She has proven that she can carry the Cougs and they are eager to surprise more people. However, for the moment, Leger-Walker will enjoy shocking the Pac-12 and continue to help to bring Washington State into the spotlight in the world of women’s basketball and beyond.
“I cannot believe that. Honestly, when people were telling me today, I didn’t believe it,” said Leger-Walker. “I think it’s just a testament to this program. The coaches what they’ve done, the vision that we’ve been talking about, like it’s legit and it’s real. I’m just excited to be the first and kind of create, start that legacy and hopefully watch everything else, or other teams, kind of do the same thing, follow in our footsteps. I’m just glad we can finally break that ice for them.”
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.