FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Second-year head coach Sue Darling had a tall task ahead of her heading into the 2013-14 season. The Northern Arizona women's basketball team returned just three players from their squad a year ago and they were picked to finish 10th out of 11 teams in the preseason Big Sky poll. Although the Lumberjacks finished shy of their goal of reaching the Big Sky Championships, this season proved to be another step in the right direction under Darling's tutelage.
"We made great strides," Darling said. "Obviously our goal is to not only make the conference tournament, but to win it and represent the league in the NCAAs. We came up short but I believe we had a lot of great milestones. We won more games than last year, our attendance was up and we had freshmen that got a lot of playing time. They've been seasoned and we're hungry for next year already. They know that champions are made in the offseason and that begins now."
Led by senior Amanda Frost and juniors Raven Anderson and Erikka Banks, the Lumberjacks had just three returners to rely on to help guide a team filled with 10 newcomers, eight of whom were true freshmen.
Despite a spirited preseason spent incorporating the team's fresh faces, NAU dropped its first two games of the season before finding its stride by winning three of its next four. The first two victories in that stretch were consecutive road wins at Utah Valley and UC Santa Barbara doubling the Lumberjacks' nonconference road win total over the last six years. However, after a home win over UT Arlington, NAU dropped its next six games including its first three Big Sky contests.
The Lumberjacks picked up their first conference game behind a stellar performance by Frost, one of many superb games from the team's lone senior this season, in come-from-behind fashion at home over Southern Utah. Trailing by as many 20 in the second half, Frost propelled the Lumberjacks past the eventual Big Sky Co-Champions with 25 of her 34 points that night in the final 20 minutes. NAU then picked up wins at Portland State and Weber State, but finished the first half of the conference slate at just 3-7.
Needing victories to climb back into the race for a tournament berth, the Lumberjacks found their stride during a four-game stretch in which they swept Portland State and Eastern Washington at home and shot their way past Northern Colorado on the road behind a historic offensive performance. The win at UNC pushed NAU's conference mark to 6-10 and put the team in position to snag one of the top-seven spots and a bid to the tournament. The Lumberjacks remained in the hunt for their first Big Sky tournament appearance in four seasons until the final weekend of play, but a four-game losing streak to conclude the season dashed their hopes.
Although NAU missed out on the postseason tournament, there is a lot to be proud of looking back beginning with the prolific season put together by Frost. The senior ended her career with what could be argued is the greatest season ever by a Lumberjack. Frost earned All-American honors by College Sports Madness in addition to a pair of Big Sky first team selections following a campaign in which she led the Big Sky in scoring at 22.5 points per game. She became the 14th player in school history to cross the 1,000 point threshold on her Senior Night and broke the single-season scoring record with 652 points, fifth-most in conference history among a list too long to recite with the numerous other records and achievements she garnered throughout the year.
Meanwhile, Banks and Anderson flourished in their first seasons as full-time starters. Banks was named all-conference honorable mention by the Big Sky coaches and to the second team by College Sports Madness after averaging 13.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. With her athleticism, Banks was a force at the basket, setting a new school record for season field goal percentage at 59 percent and creating opportunities at the free-throw line where she made 129 free throws, the second-most in school history. Anderson averaged 9.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game and swatted a team-best 28 shots. She really came on strong at the end of the season, averaging 16.8 points and 10.6 rebounds over the last five games, to give her momentum to build on next season.
The team's upperclassmen produced on the court but so did several notable freshmen led by Brittani Lusain, the Big Sky's Outstanding Freshman. Lusain was a sparkplug whether she was in the starting five or coming off the bench with a line of 13.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.9 steals per game which clearly elevated her above the rest of the conference's first-year players.
But Lusain was not the only NAU freshmen to shine in their first seasons. Rene Coggins ran a potent Lumberjack offense from the point guard position, leading the Big Sky in minutes per game while proving the team with another weapon from the perimeter outside of Frost. Priscilla Brooks and Catelyn Preston both registered double-doubles this season while Taylor Leyva earned 17 starts as a true freshman.
"We had some growing pains and that's what gave us an up-and-down feel this year, but we knew that was going to happen," Darling said. "By the holidays, everyone grasped onto what we wanted to do and the freshmen got better and better throughout conference play."
NAU was a force to be reckoned with on the offensive end, averaging 72.8 points per game for the season – the third highest scoring average in school history – while leading the conference in field goal percentage at 44.7 percent – the second best percentage in school history. In spite of their offensive proficiency, the Lumberjacks' struggles on the defensive end proved to be too much to overcome as they allowed 79.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting from the field.
In the end, the 'Jacks finished the season at 9-20 overall and 6-14 in Big Sky play. The nine wins marked a one-game improvement from Darling's first year and nearly half of their defeats were by 10 points or less. The Lumberjacks also won six games by double-digits, three of which were by at least 20 points.
Optimism is high for next season after this year's extremely young team showed many glimpses of things to come in 2013-14. With a core group led by seniors-to-be Banks and Anderson plus a freshman class that will only get better in their second year, there is reason to be excited for next year's version of the Lumberjack women's basketball program.
"We didn't finish the season the way we wanted to, but we'll be in a much better spot starting off next year," Darling said. "These kids that will be returning are the epitome of what we are looking for in players that play great team basketball as hard as they can. We bring back an exciting core and in my mind we'll have a championship caliber team next year."