By Duane Cochran
For the Times West Virginian
Despite having to replace a trio of talented starters, including All-America point guard Kaitlin Snyder, from a team that finished 23-10, won the final West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship and made an appearance in the NCAA Division II National Tournament, Fairmont State University’s 2013-14 Lady Falcons came close to heading back to the so-called “Big Dance” this year.
FSU ended the season 18-10 overall and tied for eighth in the final D-II Atlantic Regional Rankings with West Liberty University. The top eight teams in the region receive a bid to the national tourney. In the end, however, the Lady Hilltoppers won the tiebreaker over FSU and headed to the Atlantic Regional, while Fairmont State headed home with a wealth of promise and potential for next season.
“I think there were two sides to the coin for this season for us,” said veteran FSU coach Steve McDonald, who finished his 14th campaign as the Lady Falcons’ head coach with an overall record of 277-135 (.672). “On the positive side we were able to record 18 wins after graduating three starters, including an All-American and our entire backcourt. To get 18 wins and actually be in the hunt for a national tournament bid makes it a positive season for us.
“On the other side of the coin, I think it was hard for us as a team to achieve consistency this season, and I think a lot of that had to do with the bad weather we endured this year. We had postponements which caused us to have almost a 28-day break between games over the Christmas break. It wasn’t until some point there in the second semester when I felt like we started to get in a rhythm as a team and consequently we started to play well.”
The weather did indeed play havoc with FSU’s schedule, and make-up contests forced the Lady Falcons to endure a stretch where they played seven games in a 15-day span, including five on the road. From Feb. 20 to Feb. 25, Fairmont played four straight road games logging 1,468 miles and over 28 hours on the bus.
The demanding travel schedule caught up to the Lady Falcons in the quarterfinals of the Mountain East Conference Tournament in Charleston, where FSU quite simply ran out of gas against West Virginia State in the second half and fell 71-59 in what was its final game of the year.
“This season was a bit of a disappointment for us just the way it ended up panning out,” said FSU junior forward Emily Lohr. “I think by the end of the season we were absolutely burnt out. The numerous overnight trips and four-hour bus rides which occurred late in the year took their toll on us. Most of us would get home around 12:30 a.m. and then go straight to the library to catch up on our school work even though we had 8 a.m. classes. Essentially all of the traveling, stressing about school and not being able to sleep as much as we needed brought us down.
“We don’t want that to be an excuse, because the bottom line is we should’ve been strong and able to deal with and overcome that, but it was rough. That’s what frustrates and disappoints me about this season.”
The good news for the Lady Falcons is that all five starters will return next year, including Lohr, senior-to-be center Hailey Garrett, senior-to-be guard Hallie Gunnoe, junior-to-be guard Makenzie White and sophomore-to-be forward Deidra Combs.
Garrett, a first-team All-MEC selection, averaged a team-high 15.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per outing. White, a second-team all-league pick, averaged 15.0 points, 5.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds. Lohr chipped in 10.9 points per game and 3.9 rebounds, Gunnoe added 10.6 points per contest and 4.9 rebounds, and Combs averaged 7.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and led FSU with 61 steals.
“At the beginning we had to all learn to play together, and by midseason I think we were a lot more comfortable on the court with each other and I think that showed,” said Lohr. “We became a close-knit team as the season went on, and I definitely think we’re going to be a team which is a big threat next season.
“We know we have areas we need to improve upon. A lot of this season for us was spent jelling, working kinks out and like I said just learning to play with one another. Next year I think we all expect to be better as a team.”
“I think we’re cautiously optimistic about next year because we do have five starters returning and several key components back, including point guard Tess Zufall, whom we lost this year in the third game of the year which forced us to change our lineup,” said McDonald. “We also brought Emily Puskarich in during the second semester, and she continues to progress for us. Then we’ve added Kelli Jo Harrison, a post player from George Washington High School, who we think is going to provide us with help inside.
“Looking at all of that, I think we have a bright future ahead of us.”