WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2011 -- This is the sound of one of the most successful teams in women's college basketball: The sound of silence
The coach doesn't yell encouragement, the players don't shout out plays and not a whistle is heard. The only sounds during practice are the bounce, bounce, bounce of the basketball, and the thumping of feet running up and down the court.
But in their own quiet way, the Lady Bison of Gallaudet University in northeast Washington are making a lot of noise.
Gallaudet is the nation's leading university for the deaf. After years of mediocrity, its women's basketball team is the surprise of the NCAA's Division III this season.
The Lady Bison are 20-1, ranked No. 18 nationally and dreaming of a national championship. And like 95 percent of the students at the school, everyone on the team is deaf or hard of hearing.
"It's an amazing feeling compared to my freshman year ... like night and day," center Nukeitra Hayes says of the team's transformation.
"It's like, jeez, now we are showing the world where Gallaudet University is," she added, speaking with the aid of a sign-language interpreter.
Not too long ago, the Lady Bison had one of the worst records in Division III. They went five years without winning a game in their conference. They lost one game by 75 points.
Gallaudet has a proud sports history. It claims to be the birthplace of the football huddle, when quarterback Paul Hubbard gathered players around him so opponents couldn't steal plays by reading his hand signals to teammates. That was 119 years ago.
The women's place in the school's record book had to await the hiring of Kevin Cook, a coach who spent 10 years as an assistant in the WNBA, and walked the sidelines as coach of the Nigerian women's national team.
Cook, 50, became Gallaudet's first full-time coach four years ago, part of an effort by the school administration to upgrade the athletic program and lift student morale.
But part of his deal was that he had to learn sign language -- and use it. He does, during practices. During games, he has the assistance of a translator.
"I'm not fluent, that's for sure," Cook jokes. "They say, 'Coach, you don't have to tell us you're from Texas, because you sign so slow.'"
Cook figures his players' inability to hear might cost the team four or five points a game. The players compensate by communicating on the court with glances and sign language.
Four years of hard work have paid off.
"Before, we used to see players who would play, but not show the commitment. Now everyone is playing hard," Hayes says.
If in the past opponents tended to underestimate them, this year they're learning not to.
In a game last week against Penn State-Berks, Gallaudet jumped out to a 15-0 lead on the back of another star player, Easter Faafiti, a 5-foot-10 center from southern California. They led 30-21 at the half, and cruised to a 70-57 victory.
"It was definitely an interesting experience," Penn State-Berks forward Stephanie Binder said after the final buzzer. "I thought it would be distracting with the sign language, but it wasn't. I think it's really amazing and I do appreciate that they are deaf."
Another Penn State-Berks senior, guard Corin Bishop, paid the Lady Bison perhaps the ultimate compliment, saying she sees them as a great basketball team, not a team of deaf players.
That's just what the Gallaudet players think, too.
"I feel there are people who stereotype us as deaf players," Hayes says. "I'm just like everyone else who plays basketball."