By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
Despite its opening-round loss to eventual NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional champion Gannon (Pa.) University in the national tournament, Fairmont State University’s women’s basketball program enjoyed one of its most successful seasons this past year.
The Lady Falcons claimed their third West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament title in six years, made their fourth trip to the NCAA Division II Tournament since 2005 and finished the year with a 23-10 record. The 23 wins are tied for the third most in school history.
Now Fairmont State’s challenge is finding replacements for three senior starters, including the most decorated female player in school history. Gone are senior point guard Kaitlin Snyder, senior two-guard Tiffany Nicholson and senior guard/forward Briana Welch as well as senior backup post players Alana George and Katelyn Kaminiski.
Snyder, a three-time first-team All-WVIAC selection and former conference and Atlantic Regional Player of the Year, finished her stellar career as the Lady Falcons’ all-time scoring leader with 2,056 points. She also ended as FSU’s all-time leader in games played (120) and games started (120), finished second in school history in career steals (288), third in made 3-point field goals (226) and fourth in assists (464). Her career scoring average of 17.1 ranks fourth all-time in FSU history. In addition, she set a new single-season record for steals this year with 94.
Nicholson, who appeared in 118 games for Fairmont State and started 87 of them, finishes her career with 952 points, which ranks 25th all-time in school history. Her 220 career steals rank her seventh in school history and her 95 career made 3-point field goals also rank seventh. Her 91 steals this year are the third-highest single-season total in school history.
Welch, who played her first two seasons at West Virginia Wesleyan, ends her career with 935 points and 400 rebounds. She also recorded 110 career steals and had 99 career assists.
Despite the loss of those three key starters, the cupboard is far from being bare for the Lady Falcons, who have a talented junior-to-be class returning which includes starters Hailey Garrett and Emily Lohr and promising back-up guard/forward Hallie Gunnoe.
Garrett was second on the team in scoring this year (13.5) and led FSU in rebounding (9.0) and blocked shots (39). She also posted a team-high 13 double-double performances, which ranked her second in the WVIAC.
“Our team this year really had great team chemistry, and that was a big key to our success,” said Garrett. “Granted, we’re losing some great players who played huge roles in our success and that chemistry, but I think if we learn from this year, keep developing our chemistry and work really hard in the off season we can keep our program at a high level. Emily, myself and Hallie all have a lot of experience now, and it’s going to be up to us to try to lead this team and help out the new and younger players next year.”
Lohr, meanwhile, battled back from an early-season knee injury and finished fifth on the team in scoring (8.1) and second in blocked shots (22) and made 3-point field goals (32).
“I think we’re going to be fine next year,” said Lohr. “Obviously, we lose a lot with Kaitlin, Tiffany and Bri leaving the program, but we’ve got players returning with experience and some transfers and new recruits who we feel can help fill those voids.
“That’s not going to be easy. You don’t just replace a Kaitlin Snyder, and like Hailey said, whoever takes over Tiffany’s role of defending the best player on the other team is going to have huge shoes to fill. But, we’re excited about the future and hope it’s going to be a bright one for us.”
Gunnoe, a transfer from Division I High Point University, came into her own late in the season for FSU and ended up averaging 6.3 points and 4.0 rebounds. She reached double digits in the scoring column 10 times this year for Fairmont, including five of the last eight games.
In January, Fairmont State added 5-9 guard Makenzie White to its roster after the former Scott High School star and state player of the year transferred from West Virginia University. White sat out the spring semester, but was able to practice with the Lady Falcons. She scored 2,130 career points in high school and averaged 20.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 4.0 steals per contest as a senior. She’ll have three years of eligibility remaining.
The Lady Falcons are also expected to add at least one more transfer and signed a pair of Ohio high school standouts early in 5-10 guard Gabrielle Etter from Bellbrook High School and 5-10 forward Diedra Coombs from Fort Frye High School in Beverly, Ohio.
“We feel like we have an excellent nucleus coming back, and we feel like that nucleus has the right mindset that I want,” said veteran FSU coach Steve McDonald, who has guided his program to 11 consecutive winning seasons.
“We want to make sure everyone in the program next year has that same exact mindset. We want them to have a great work ethic and a determination and a desire to get better every day.
“We signed some people early this year from high school, and we have Makenzie White, who transferred to us from WVU and we expected to get another transfer as well. I think we have a chance to be really special next year. I’m not one to undersell and overachieve, but I think we’re going to be good.
“At the same time, though, I’m pretty darn proud of this group and what they were able to achieve this season.”