Patton’s final year: NAU starts new era in women’s hoops

The women’s basketball team at Northern Arizona University is just three practices into a new season, but already there is a tinge of optimism for a program that has suffered through some disappointing years.

And no one has borne that burden more than Amy Patton.

The record-breaking guard from McClintock High School in Tempe is beginning her fourth and final year with the program.  She began her college career as the Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year and broke a 25-year-old school record for single-season scoring with 539 points – and has continued to lead the Lumberjacks in just about every category each year since.

But her career accomplishments have been buried in the ruins of a program that never lived up to her expectations – or anyone else’s expectations.

Patton did what she could through the years, but has been saddled with teams that went 5-24 in her first year, followed by 11-18 and 9-21 seasons.  The Jacks were generally picked to finish somewhere among the bottom three in the conference each year – and sometimes even had trouble living up to those mediocre predictions.

Last season, the average attendance had dwindled to just 277 fans a game – an embarrassingly modest stage to display one of the best players in the school’s history.

But now there’s a new sheriff in town.  Former head coach Laurie Kelly left after last season to take a similar job with a D-III school in her native Minnesota.  She was replaced with Sue Darling, an assistant the past four years on the University of Arizona coaching staff and one-time head coach of the Air Force program.

So far, she’s encouraged.  “I thought we had great energy,” she said after the first practice Tuesday.  “The kids were ready to go and they were sharp from the beginning.  They’re really picking up on stuff, so they’ve been a lot of fun to coach so far.”

Patton apparently agrees.  “I’m really excited after the first practice,” she added.  “All of us are on the same page and we are all going into the season wanting to make it the best year we have had.”

And it only seems fair that her wish comes true.  She is arguably the most deserving player in college basketball, considering how hard she has worked, with so few results the past three years.

She has led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and minutes played since her sophomore year and now sits in third place on the school’s career-scoring list.  Another 280 points in her final campaign will put her at the top of the list.

During the course of her efforts on behalf of the struggling Lumberjack program she has recorded three of the 10 highest single-season scoring totals in program history and ranks among the all-time leaders in three-pointers, rebounds, and steals.  She does it all.

She will have some help making this a better year since there are three more of last season’s top five scorers returning this season, including Aubrey Davis, Tyler Stephens-Jenkins, and Amanda Frost.  All are seniors except for the junior, Frost, and the roster also includes another senior, Paige Haynes, who appeared in 23 games last year in a reserve role.

So it will be an experienced group of upperclassmen on the floor for the 2012-13 season.  Davis led the team last year with a .519 field-goal percentage and 33 blocks, Frost ranked fourth in the conference with a .360 three-point percentage in her first season with the program after playing a year at Fullerton College in California, and Stephens-Jenkins was fifth in scoring and fourth in rebounding.

Stephens-Jenkins is another local product.  The 5’10” point guard from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix played in 23 games last year after missing the first five games with an injury.

This year’s squad has a challenging non-conference schedule that includes Nebraska, which finished last year ranked No. 17 in the country, and New Mexico, which played for the Mountain West Championship a year ago.  They begin with a road game against New Mexico; conference play begins Dec. 20.

So the team is excited.  But it will be interesting to see if the rest of the conference is giving them any love this year.  The pre-season ballots were just sent out to the Big Sky coaches.

A new coach with solid experience.  An experienced team bolstered with seniors.  And one of the most prolific scorers in the conference.

That should be worth a move up from the cellar in this year’s pre-season polls.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)