Things are looking up for NAU women’s basketball

So far, the off-season for Coach Laurie Kelly has been good.  Really good.

The head coach for the women’s basketball program at Northern Arizona University is on a roll.  She had her contract renewed, got a new assistant coach who played professionally, brought in a nationally-ranked recruiting class, and has a schedule that is friendlier than last year.

The weather is cool up in Flagstaff.  And life is good.

Kelly’s contract renewal is a show of support for a program that went 5-24 last year and drew fewer than 400 fans on average for each game.  The team probably looked forward to away games because they could count on  a decent crowd each night, an average of about 1,200 per game on the road.

The new three-year contract will take Kelly through the 2013 season.  She just completed her seventh season at the Lumberjacks’ helm, during which time her teams have advanced to the post-season tournament each year.

Kelly was the first women’s basketball coach to take an NAU team to the NCAA Tournament and, four years ago, the Lumberjacks won the conference title for the first time in school history.  She was also the first coach to win more than 20 games in two seasons.

And this year she has added a former Lumberjack player to the coaching staff to help the team get back to the top of the pile.  Laura Dinkins played at NAU from 2003-2008, was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, and is second on the school’s all-time rebounding lists for career and single-season.  She pulled down a total of 714 overall and 252 in a single season.

Dinkins played professionally overseas for two years, a season in the Netherlands and a season in Germany, where her Chem Cats team won the Division II Championship.

Kelly and her staff will have eight returning letterwinners that will welcome a recruiting class that was ranked No. 53 in the country by ESPN HoopGurlz.  The 2010 class is ranked the highest in the state, with University of Arizona coming in at No.55.  ASU was not listed.

The five new recruits include the No. 25-ranked point guard among high school seniors, Shakila Boler from Minnesota, and the No. 35-ranked forward in Trinidee Trice from California.

The others on the list from out-of-state include Shayla Benton, a 5’9″ wing player who was a member of the No. 1 nationally-ranked Mater Dei HS in California; Khyra Conerly, a guard/forward combo from California who averaged 14 points and nine rebounds her senior year; and Sendy Valley, a 5’10” foward from Colorado who was a three-time All-State selection and the all-time scoring leader for Roosevelt High School in Jonestown.

One local graduate is included, a nationally-ranked small forward from Xavier Prep in Phoenix.  Shay May is rated as the No. 63 player at her position and was a four-year letterwinner in basketball at Xavier.

And let’s not forget that the Jacks will have the Big Sky Freshman of the Year returning for the coming season.  Amy Patton, a 5’10” guard from McClintock High School in Tempe, was the second-leading scorer in the conference (18.6 pts/game) and top rebounder (8.6 reb/game).

She, too, had an illustrious high school career.  Patton was the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year her junior year and the Arizona Republic Player of the Year her senior year.

The 2010 schedule, which was just released this week, is a challenging one, with four programs included from major conferences: both Arizona schools from the Pac-10 and Northwestern and Minnesota from the Big Ten.  But it also has more home games than last season, a welcome break from the travel.

And next year, Coach Kelly will be able to show off her latest recruiting catches to other potential in-state recruits since the Jacks will visit both ASU and UofA on the 2010 schedule, giving local players an opportunity to see what NAU can put on the floor.

That won’t mean much if it’s another 5-24 squad.  But it looks like the talent is in place to be able to put a good product on the floor for the 2010 season.

And a coaching staff eager to put 2009 in the rear view mirror.

(Photos: NAU Athletics)