Non-conference schedule ‘critical’ for NAU women’s hoops

The signing of a local prep standout last week is a reminder of the transformation that is taking place in the Northern Arizona University women’s basketball program.

There are just three returning players from last year, when Sue Darling took over the program.  Last year she was still working with players that were, in large part, recruited by her predecessor, Laurie Kelly.

And that had to be factored into the team’s disappointing 8-21 record and eighth-place finish in the Big Sky Conference.  This year, she pretty much owns the results.

A 74-66 loss to Hawaii last week to open the 2013-14 campaign wasn’t the way the former head coach at Air Force had hoped to showcase her re-built program.  Eighteen turnovers and inconsistent defensive effort enabled the Rainbow Wahine to build a lead in the second half that the Lumberjacks couldn’t overcome.

But Darling, who spent four seasons as an assistant coach at University of Arizona before hiring on in Flagstaff, saw some things she liked and came away with high hopes for what her team is going to be able to accomplish this year.  “I felt that we got some things offensively that we have been working on,” she said after the game.  “But out defense was non-existent; giving up 74 points is too much.  (But) we had 20 assists and 25 field goals, which was fantastic.  And we shot 45 percent (from the field).”

Her captain on the floor, Amanda Frost, agreed with her coach’s assessment.  “I know we have to work on things, and it shows,” said the lone senior on the squad.  “But what we also showed tonight was how far we’ve come and how much potential we have as a team.”

Frost, the 5’8″ senior guard from California whom Darling calls the “physical and emotional leader” of the team, led the attack against Hawaii with 24 points and chipped in four three-pointers.

She is one of the trio of returnees and was the team’s second-leading scorer last year with 9.9 points a game, and also led the team in three-point percentage.  That was after she finally got onto the floor after missing the first two months of the season with an injury.

The other two who return are Raven Anderson, who was not a starter but played in all 29 games off the bench, and Erikka Banks, who also sat out part of the early season with an injury and came back to average 7.5 points and 5 rebounds for 15 games.  Both play under the basket, Anderson in the center position and Banks as a forward.

Darling will have to blend in 10 newcomers to play with those few returnees, but she has a pretty solid recruiting class to work with, made up of eight freshmen and a pair of sophomores.  While that means Darling will have to count pretty heavily on a young roster this year, next year will bear the fruit of that effort – and Anderson and Banks will be back to provide the senior leadership.

In the past, under former head coach Kelly, the recruiting effort was focused heavily on Arizona and California and there was plenty of home-grown talent on the roster.  But Darling has just two on this year’s roster from Arizona: Anderson, who played at Chandler High School, and freshman guard Rene Coggins who was a first team All-Conference player at Mountain View High School in Mesa.

The local standout in the Class of 2014 we referenced at the start of this article is from Dobson High School in Mesa.  Tori Lloyd, a 5’7″ combo guard, sent her National Letter of Intent in last week.  She finished her junior season last year with a team-high scoring average of 13.1 points, canned 53 three-pointers, and was a major contributor on defense with a team-high 48 steals.

But, while Darling is waiting for the arrival of her next recruiting class, there’s the task of dealing with expectations this year.  Actually, that shouldn’t be too hard since the ‘Jacks were picked to finish 10th in the Big Sky – out of 11 teams – in both the coaches and media pre-season polls.

She figured a competitive non-conference schedule would be a good way to get her team ready for the rigors of conference play in January.  The team goal this year is to win the Big Sky.

“The non-conference is critical to what we’re doing,” she said before the season started.

OK, Hawaii didn’t work out too well.  Up next is UTEP on Friday, the first of four games on the road.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)