R stands for reserves, not rebuilding

A new coach, two seniors: And it’s 6th NCAAs in a row

Mary Brinton’s aggressive play off the Skyhawks’ bench helped solidify the post and their season. After a slow start, FLC rallied around its reserves to reach its sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file photo

Mary Brinton’s aggressive play off the Skyhawks’ bench helped solidify the post and their season. After a slow start, FLC rallied around its reserves to reach its sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament.

This just in: Doubt the Skyhawks at your own peril.

It was easy to wonder what would become of the Fort Lewis College women’s basketball program as December dawned. Under a new head coach, FLC was 1-5 on the road out of the gate, and after losing its entire starting frontcourt and two key bench players, it was easy to go ahead and attach the r-word – rebuilding – on the Skyhawks’ 2012-13 iteration.

But a curious thing happened from there. The Skyhawks won two of three heading into the holiday break, then ripped off five in a row after the break. Players became more comfortable in head coach Jason Flores’ system and in their individual roles, and down the stretch, FLC was the hottest team in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and South Central Region not named Colorado Mesa.

All that work turned doubters into believers and the Skyhawks (18-10) from a rebuilding team to an NCAA Tournament participant for the sixth consecutive year as FLC finished the season on a 17-5 burst.

“I’m not going to lie. It was a shaky start, and we’ve come a really long way since then,” FLC senior combo guard Alex Easterbrook said. “So we have a lot to be proud of.

“For us to be able to start off so rough and come back under a new coach, I think it speaks wonders to the type of girls they bring in here.”

Despite a rocky start, the Skyhawks didn’t panic. They didn’t start massively overhauling their concepts; they didn’t go to vastly different bench rotations. They stayed the course, and as Flores often told them they would, the Skyhawks became the good team they expected to be.

Heretofore little used reserves such as Mary Brinton, Erin Curry and Kaile Magazzeni grew in confidence and ability level, and the core group that comprised the starting lineup began clicking as they had in years past.

For Flores, it started to come together when FLC returned after the holiday break looking better than when the break began.

“Going into break, I felt like we had started to turn that corner. ... I felt like coming off of break, we came back as a team in a good place,” Flores said. “They came back, and they were ready to go. Sometimes, you worry that your team comes back, and they’re in a lull. But we came back in a mentally good place, ready to go.

“And we got better. We made a jump in practice when we came back from break that, to a coach, it was a noticeable jump. We got better in that week.”

The Skyhawks had a little hiccup with back-to-back losses at Metro State and at home against Colorado Christian, but they responded loudly from there, winning nine consecutive games to force their way into the NCAA Tournament conversation. Included in those nine wins were victories over bubble teams CSU-Pueblo and UC-Colorado Springs as well as fellow tournament team Metro State as the Skyhawks avenged earlier losses to all three teams.

“When we started making that run, and we started winning, winning and kept winning, our confidence kept going up,” Curry said. “And we knew that we could do it. And everybody doubted us. And we just wanted to prove everybody wrong.”

Selection Sunday was nerve-wracking in its own right. Was that hot finish enough to lift FLC into the big dance? Then, FLC popped up on the Cuckoo’s Chicken House big screen as the No. 8 seed, and the jubilant cheers among the Skyhawks and their fans were the final sign to doubters that their portion of crow, long since on its way, was ready for consumption.

And for Easterbrook, one of the team’s two seniors alongside Katerina Garcia, it provided relief. No longer was there the nervousness of not knowing what would be her final game. Now, which will be the final game of her collegiate career firmly is in her and her teammates’ hands.

“It’s nice to know now whether or not we’re going to be done. ... If we win, we move on. If we lose, we’re done,” Easterbrook said. “At least we know. It was really hard to not know, and that was the hardest part.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to go out any other way.”

rowens@durangoherald.com

As soon as the Skyhawks placed more trust in Erin Curry and their bench, they started to soar. Fort Lewis College was 1-5 to start the regular season, then finished with a 17-5 burst to reach the big dance in a “rebuilding” year.  “When we started making that run, and we started winning, winning and kept winning, our confidence kept going up,” Curry said. “And we knew that we could do it. And everybody doubted us. And we just wanted to prove everybody wrong.” Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file photo

As soon as the Skyhawks placed more trust in Erin Curry and their bench, they started to soar. Fort Lewis College was 1-5 to start the regular season, then finished with a 17-5 burst to reach the big dance in a “rebuilding” year. “When we started making that run, and we started winning, winning and kept winning, our confidence kept going up,” Curry said. “And we knew that we could do it. And everybody doubted us. And we just wanted to prove everybody wrong.”

FLC and first-year head coach Jason Flores started to put the ball – and place his trust – in Kaile Magazzeni and the Skyhawks’ reserves, and that was a big reason for the Skyhawks’ turnaround. Enlarge photo

Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo

FLC and first-year head coach Jason Flores started to put the ball – and place his trust – in Kaile Magazzeni and the Skyhawks’ reserves, and that was a big reason for the Skyhawks’ turnaround.