NAU women’s hoops going BIG as critical year looms

You couldn’t miss Raven Anderson when she played basketball at Chandler High School last year.

The 6’2″ post player stood above the crowd, contributing 11 points and almost seven rebounds a game for the Wolves as the team went undefeated through their 5A-I conference schedule and finished runner-up for the state championship.

“Raven gives us great size,” says her new head coach, Laurie Kelly.  “We need a dominating presence inside and I feel that she has the ability to be that player for us.”

Now the incoming freshman is part of a recruiting class at Northern Arizona University that will try to push the program back up the hill to where it was five years ago, when it won the Big Sky Conference championship.

Lately, it has been a struggle for the Lumberjacks.  They are coming off an 11-18 season, an encouraging improvement over the 5-24 record the year before – but not what Kelly had in mind when she took over the program in 2003 after five years as the head coach at Binghamton University in New York.

In some respects, last year’s squad appeared to have under-achieved. The 2010 recruiting class was ranked No. 53 in the country, the highest among the Arizona universities, and was generally considered to be the best among the schools in any of the three major conferences in the West: the Pac 10, Big 12, and the Mountain West.

They were returning the Big Sky Freshman of the Year, Amy Patton, and the Newcomer of the Year, Vickie Toney.  Those two outstanding players joined seven other letter winners that would be the foundation for the 2010-11 season. (Patton broke the 1,000-point plateau last year as a sophomore, finishing the season with 1,016 points.)

And, yet, the Jacks were picked to finish seventh in the pre-season coaches’ and media polls released by the Big Sky Conference prior to the start of the season.

And that’s right where they finished, in seventh place with a 6-10 conference mark.  So perhaps they were a little over-hyped last season.

But now maybe the 2011 Class will get them a respectable pre-season forecast – and then back it up with a strong effort on the court.   It will help that the Jacks will have a solid core of experienced veterans for the coming season, to provide a little guidance for the new kids.

Chandler’s Anderson offers the best size in the new batch of recruits, but all three of the post players in the group are each 6-foot or taller.  The other two recruits are small enough to play in their shadow – literally.

Paige Haynes is a 5’7″ point guard who led her junior college team to back-to-back conference championships and Coach Kelly is looking to her for the same kind of leadership as she expects Haynes to be an impact player early.

Haynes set a single-season assist record (129) as a senior at California’s Martin Luther King High School and then went on to win All-Conference first-team honors during her two years at San Bernardino Valley College.

Jasmine Sneed is just 5’3″, but is also a leader on the floor.  The point guard averaged over 12 points and three assists a game and was a first team All-Ventura (Calif) County selection as a senior.  She led her Sierra Canyon High School squad to three league titles and a state championship.

The other bigs coming on board include two more freshmen, both from California: Erikka Banks, a 6’0″ forward from Clovis High School, and 6’1″ Chanel Smith from Santa Clara High, who can play either the 3 or 4 position.

Banks was the Fresno Junior League Senior Girl Athlete of the Year last season and led her team to the conference championship.  Smith posted 11 double-digit scoring games and 11 double-digit rebounding efforts during her senior season as her high school won the CIF championship.

“We’ve struggled to have a consistent go-to player in the paint, and our three new bigs will give us a lot of great options at the 4 and 5 (positions),” says Kelly.

The coming season will be a critical one for the eight-year head coach, as she continues to try to right the lilting ship.

Kelly is in the second year of a three-year extension on her coaching contract.  A couple of more sub-.500 seasons before it’s up in 2013 won’t give her much negotiating leverage for another extension.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)