CORVALLIS, Ore. -- When Marie Gülich came to Oregon State from her native Germany, she wasn't too worried about being on her own so far from home or getting used to the food or adjusting to college basketball. She could handle all of that. But there was an element of the language difference that gave her pause.
"At first, you don't really have a personality because you can't express yourself the way you want to," Gülich said. "You want to tell a joke, but you may not have the right words yet. So at first, they all thought I was super shy. But I'm not a shy person at all. I just didn't know how to express myself yet."
How long did it take? She says about five months, which gives you an idea of what a high achiever Gülich is. She was pretty much fluent even in American slang by then. Now, as the lone senior who anchors 10th-ranked Oregon State, she remembers what keyed the communication breakthrough.
"Once I got closer with everyone," she said, "and once I got comfortable with making mistakes and being able to laugh about it, it happened pretty fast."
No doubt it feels to head coach Scott Rueck like his time with Gülich has gone by way too fast. It has been a delight for him to coach Gülich, who has such a great appreciation for the opportunity to play college basketball and carry on the blossoming tradition at Oregon State. If anyone was ready to be in a class by herself, it was Gülich. The center will lead the No. 3 seed Beavers into the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals on Friday in Seattle.
"Everything she does is going to get her best effort," Rueck said. "The very first time I talked to her, I was struck by how well-spoken she was and how she had such a clear vision. She wanted to be a great player and was looking for a place where she could develop.
"She followed the examples of Ruth Hamblin, Jamie Weisner and Sydney Wiese, who have legendary work ethics. Marie has continued that legacy this year."
Starting her career getting schooled a lot by the 6-foot-6 Hamlin was a challenging but valuable learning ground for the 6-foot-5 Gülich. But even then, Gülich impressed Hamblin and Rueck with how quickly she could get down court.
"Marie went through some doubts, but to her credit, she stayed positive through it," Rueck said. "And then she became a tough cover for Ruth. It was an amazing battle to watch them day in and day out."
Playing behind Hamblin, Gülich bided her time and averaged 3.7 points and 3.5 rebounds in her first two years. Hamblin and guard Weisner capped their careers by leading Oregon State to the Final Four in 2016.
Last year, the effervescent Weise led a four-senior Beavers team that made it to the Sweet 16. Gülich took big a step forward, starting every game and averaging 9.9 points and 8.1 rebounds.
Then Weise headed to the WNBA, and Gülich, with one college season left, went home to Germany for the summer -- but not to relax. She played with the German national team, which included current Oregon freshman star Satou Sabally. Gülich enjoyed her time back home, but it made her appreciate her new home in Corvallis even more.
"I realized how special all of this is," she said. "It gave me a different perspective, which is really cool. I came back here and said, 'Let's do this together. I'm ready to go.'"
Rueck said Gülich knew that as the only senior, she'd have the most she had ever had on her shoulders.
"I've found when that's the case with people, it's sink or swim. And Marie is a winner," Rueck said. "She went to Germany and came back in the best shape and the most confident she's ever been."
Basketball was the ultimate confidence-builder for Gülich when she was an adolescent growing up near Cologne, Germany. She was very tall and thin -- "like a big stick" -- as a 13-year-old, standing out even though she didn't want to. One day at school, someone made fun of her height in a mean way. It was stuff she'd heard before, but on this day, it stung.
"I was so sad about it, and I was crying," she said.
The mother of one of her good friends said, "You need to play basketball," and took her to do just that. At first, it was just for fun, as she played a couple of times a week. Gülich didn't even think she was very good. But the coach at a boarding school about 20 minutes from her home saw her and thought otherwise. He offered her a scholarship.
Some U.S. colleges showed interest in her, but she wasn't ready to consider that then. But after high school, she played on a travel team that came to the United States, which gave her more exposure to college basketball here.
"When I visited the schools, I saw these amazing gyms, weight rooms, the locker rooms. I would have never imagined anything like this in Germany," Gülich said. "I had played in Germany in the highest league and thought it wasn't going to help me as much as I needed. I wanted to see how much room I had to grow."
This season, Gülich is averaging 17.4 points and 9.1 rebounds and has blocked a Pac-12-leading 88 shots. Named to the all-Pac-12 team this week, she comes into the league tournament after scoring a career-high 36 points on 16-of-18 shooting in a 64-60 victory at Arizona State on Sunday.
The Beavers (23-6) are on the cusp of the being a top-16 seed, and a strong run in the Pac-12 tournament might get them there. Gülich would love one more chance to play in Gill Coliseum, where on Feb. 18 she had a memorable senior day, complete with her father there to sing the German national anthem before the game. Then Gülich had 25 points and nine rebounds in a victory over Southern Cal.
Gülich has come on so strong her senior year that she should have caught the attention of WNBA teams who previously might not have taken note of her. There hasn't been much German presence in the WNBA, though Marlies Askamp spent six seasons in the league and Linda Frölich four. Rueck thinks Gülich has a shot.
"She's 6-[foot]-5, legitimately. She has a back-to-the basket game, she passes the ball, she has a high IQ," he said. "You tell her something once, and it sticks. This year, everyone is able to see her defensive ability. The greatest attribute she's developed is her perimeter scoring, and at the next level, that might be the biggest factor to her success."
Gülich still has more to accomplish at Oregon State, of course. She laughs when remembering being a freshman from a foreign land, when she didn't even realize the Beavers had won the Pac-12 regular-season title, when she didn't know what March Madness was. Now, she has helped Oregon State go 113-21 in her four seasons.
At some point -- she hopes it's still a ways off -- she'll do one last translation for her team. Since last year, the Beavers have shouted a German phrase before each game. They don't know what it means and haven't tried to figure it out, saying they'll wait for Gülich to explain.
"It's nothing bad," she said with a smile. "It's just a German motivation thing. When we're done, I'll tell them."