FAIRMONT — If anyone within or involved with the Fairmont State women’s basketball program could take any solace throughout the past 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be that the Lady Falcons at least weren’t pondering what could’ve been.
Last winter, in Stephanie Anderson’s debut season as head coach, the Lady Falcons went 15-14 overall, including 12-10 in conference play, to earn the No. 6 seed in the Mountain East Conference Tournament, where they were downed by Charleston in the quarterfinals. The loss to the Golden Eagles spelled the end to an up-and-down season on March 5 for Fairmont State, just a week or so before many other programs saw their seasons end without clarity or resolution due to the onset of the coronavirus.
Now, after 10 months of wondering when or if a 2020-21 season would be played, the Lady Falcons are on the doorstep to begin anew. A dose of uncertainty still remains, however, for on Wednesday, just 24 hours before Fairmont State was scheduled to tip off its season at West Virginia Wesleyan, the Lady Falcons were forced to pause all team activities due to COVID-19 protocols. Their originally scheduled opener against the Bobcats and their home opener slated for Sunday against Davis & Elkins have both been postponed.
“We missed all this,” said Anderson, who enters her second year as the Lady Falcons’ head coach and seventh overall with the program. “We’re fortunate to be able to be here and play, because there are a lot of teams that aren’t. I think we all have tons of questions and it’s hard because no one really has answers, which is just where things are. But I will say that the players have done a fantastic job — they’ve come everyday with energy and they’re working extremely hard. I think having all that time off where they had to quarantine did bring back the value of being able to play on a basketball court and being in a team atmosphere. They’re thankful they get the opportunity to play.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has already altered the timeline and competitive landscape of this season within the MEC, and it will continue to loom as a disruptor, most evidently through potential game cancellations, such as Thursday and Sunday, as well as daily player availability stemming from contraction or contact tracing. Anderson, whose Falcons have been partaking in various team activities — practices, weight training, etc. — since September, said players and staff are currently being tested three times a week and several players have missed time here and there due to contact tracing.
“It’s a credit to our administration and our league to pull this off when there are so many leagues sitting at home,” Anderson said. “Our kids are so excited, and they’re pumped to play anybody at this point, they don’t care who it is; they want to compete, they want to show how hard they’ve worked, and they want to get out and play.”
When the Lady Falcons, who enter the year ranked fifth in the MEC preseason poll, are permitted to get on the court for its opener, it will be the team’s first game action since its MEC Tournament loss last March. With no scrimmages nor exhibition matchups permitted due to COVID-19, the first contest will offer the first glimpse of the Falcons in a real competitive capacity against outside competition.
“It’s hard to say what we are at this point just because we haven’t played another opponent; after the first game, I could probably give you a ton,” Anderson said. “What I’ve seen thus far is just how hard our players work. I hope every night that we never get outworked. I hope they just give absolutely everything they have and make it tough on their opponent every single night. That’s what they’ve been doing in practice everyday, so I hope they can stay consistent with that and do it on a nightly basis.”
That work ethic has permeated across the entire roster during preseason practice, Anderson said, from the team’s bonafide returnees, such as guards Sierra Kotchman and Kamrin Weimer, to the program’s five-player batch of newbies in four incoming freshman and University of Northwestern Ohio transfer Jartaya Hall.
“I think of the mix of the two is fantastic,” Anderson said of the Falcons’ returning players and new additions. “I think (the new players) all bring different things and great things to the table, and I think with the returners, it’s a beautiful blend.”
Kotchman and Weimer, of course, are the team’s nucleus as volume scoring guards, who were ranked first and third, respectively, on the team in scoring last season. Kotchman is a straight-up walking bucket, a back-to-back first team all-conference selection, with eyes on becoming the all-time leading scorer in Fairmont State school history; already Fairmont State’s all-time leader in made 3s, Kotchman needs just 424 points to also eclipse the program’s all-time scoring mark. Weimer, meanwhile, broke out big time last year as a junior, averaging 13.7 points in 35.1 minutes a game, while starting all 29 contests for the Falcons.
“Obviously we have Sierra and Kam, which everybody knows about, but it’s all of them — G, Press, Erin too — their leadership has been fantastic,” Anderson said, referring to a trio of other returners in guards Gracey Lamm and Presley Tuttle and forward Erin Danik. “They’ve really bought in and they’ve done a great job of enforcing that culture this year.”
Kotchman, Weimer, Tuttle and Lamm bestow the Falcons with a ton of experience in their projected four-guard lineup, and the quartet harmoniously fits together in terms of skill set as well, with a tidy combination of collective ball handling, playmaking, shooting and defense that suit Fairmont State’s spread, up-and-down style. Sophomores Taylor Duplaga and Katy Darnell are also back after taking on rotational roles last season, and Anderson particularly noted Darnell’s strong close to last season and how that confidence has thus far carried into the preseason.
“I think the biggest thing with the returners is that they continue to have confidence and leadership,” Anderson said.
Those six returning guards, along with Hall and freshman Madeline Huffman who arrives after a historic career at in-state Parkersburg Catholic, will be the heartbeat of the Falcons. It’s in the frontcourt and on the defensive interior where question marks still lie after the graduation of forward Rachel Laskody, who turned in a monster senior season in 2019-20. Danik, a fourth-year senior, is the only experienced frontcourt player on the roster, a 6-foot-2 presence who has carved out a valuable rotational role in each of the past two seasons. Danik is no doubt due for a minutes uptick, but there will also be opportunity for incoming freshmen forwards Bre Wilson out of Parkersburg and Jalen Gibbs out of Wellington, Ohio, as well as possibilities with small-ball experimentation.
“The biggest thing that we learned from last year was consistency; I thought we were a roller coaster, we were very up-and-down,” Anderson said. “That’s what this group needs to be better of. We need to be very consistent with how we approach everything, and we need to take things step by step, especially in a year like this where each day we’re given, it’s going to be about making the most of that opportunity.”