Second-year coach has St. Francis ladies hoops atop NEC
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The St. Francis Brooklyn women's basketball team is sailing in uncharted waters this year. And sailing ahead of the competition for a change.
A perennial Northeast Conference cellar-dweller in seasons past, the Terriers (7-2) currently boast the best record in the league, remain unbeaten at home and will carry a season-high three-game winning streak into Saturday's game against visiting Lafayette College at Remsen Street's Pope Center.
Second-year coach and former Terriers assistant John Thurston has been the architect of this stunning turnaround, though he's quick to point out that his players, especially a junior class that endured a brutal 4-25 campaign in 2011-12, are most responsible for the change in course for this previously struggling program.
“To be successful you have to have good players," Thurston told the Eagle from his office at the Franciscan College. "Not just talented basketball players, but those who are motivated to work hard."
St. Francis improved to 11-18 a season ago under Thurston en route to reaching the NEC Tournament. Now, the Terriers are actually flirting with the idea that they might become the first team in the Downtown school's long history to reach the NCAA Tournament.
But Thurston believes the best way for his team to achieve such a lofty goal is to focus on the present, as in the next practice, the next play and the next opponent.
“We operate on a philosophy of what we’re doing right now," he said. "We don’t really talk about the NEC, the NEC Tournament. Obviously, when you’re sitting around and people talk about getting to the NCAAs, we talk about one play at a time.
"I think it’s a lot easier that way, rather than getting caught up in records" Thurston added, a couple of hours before leading the Terriers onto the floor for their next practice. "It’s not just this year, it’s the way we operated last year. We don’t want to get to the point where we say this is a big game, School’s and administrations usually do that.”
Third-year standouts Eilidh Simpson, Sarah Benedetti, Jaymee Veney, Katie Fox, Jessica Kaufman and Colette Hounshell can all attest to how trying it was when the Terriers were at the bottom, rather than the top, of the league standings entering the NEC portion of the schedule.
In its first season with St. Francis, the talented sextet won just three of 18 conference games under former coach Brenda Milano. The team's lone senior, Jasmin Robinson of Brooklyn's Medgar Evers Prep, was part of a team that went 2-27 during her freshman season.
But Milano and Thurston made a crucial decision in how they would recruit new players entering their final season together on the bench.
They opted to put academic achievement above all other considerations when picking prospects, hoping that student-athletes who worked hard in the classroom would do the same on the hardwood.
Thus far, the results have been staggering and inspiring, not only to Thurston but to Terriers fans who have witnessed the women's team's best start to a season since the 1976-77 campaign.
"My last year with Brenda, we made a conscious effort to recruit kids that were good students, highly motivated in the classroom," Thurston revealed. "We don’t recruit junior college players, we only recruit players who can keep us at an academic level that we’re at."
The Terriers' cumulative grade-point average of 3.625 ranks tied for second in the entire nation among Women's Basketball Coaches Association programs.
To Thurston, those numbers are just as, if not more impressive, than non-conference victories St. Francis has already posted over the likes of Penn, Army, UMass, NJIT, Hartford, Columbia and Cornell.
“Obviously we’re really happy with our record," Thurston said. "We’re playing well. We’ve beaten some really good teams. We only have losses to a Big East school (St. John's) and an ACC school (Miami). When you put together a team of players who have played together for a few years, you’re going to see results like this.
"If you look at the core of our team, and if you took the combined grade-point average of our team, one thing opposing coaches say is how well our players play together," he added.
After hosting Lafayette and visiting Delaware State on Dec. 29, the Terriers will get down to the business of proving they can translate their non-conference success to the grinding NEC schedule, beginning with a Jan. 6 showdown against visiting Fairleigh Dickinson.
But knowing Thurston and his coaching philosophy, the Terriers won't get caught looking past their next practice.
Or their next exam in the classroom.
Or their next shot at improving on the program's best start since Jimmy Carter was president and Billy Martin was in the midst of his first stint as Yankees manager.
"We want to have the best one-hour practice that we can today," Thurston insisted. “That’s all we’re concentrating on.”
The St. Francis men's team fell back to .500 with Tuesday night's 73-58 home loss to Monmouth.
Freshman guard Sheldon Hagigal poured in a career-high 23 points as the Terriers mounted a strong second-half comeback before coming up short for the second straight game following their 5-3 start to the season.
Junior Kevin Douglas added a season-high 13 points for St. Francis, which will host Canisius on Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m.
The three-time defending NEC championship men's squad from LIU-Brooklyn (2-6) continued to struggle during the non-conference portion of its schedule with Monday night's 76-69 loss to Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa.
Senior point guard Jason Brickman, the nation's assists leader, had 10 points and 12 helpers, moving him within three assists of moving past Marist's Drafton Davis (1984-88) for the all-time NEC record.
The All-NEC Selection and Bob Cousy Award candidate as the nation's top point man will get his chance to make history Thursday night when the Blackbirds visit NJIT.
The Blackbirds, who are the first team ever to capture three straight NEC crowns, are still hoping to have former NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd (knee injury) back next month when they begin the quest for an unprecedented fourth consecutive league title.
The LIU-Brooklyn women's team hopes to snap a season-opening eight-game slide Saturday afternoon in Long Branch, N.J., where they will take on Monmouth.
The Brooklyn College women's team held off a late rally by SUNY Old Westbury on Wednesday night, escaping with a hard-earned 78-76 road victory behind 23 points and 11 rebounds from senior Megan Campbell.
The Lady Bulldogs (5-3) will shoot for their third straight win Friday evening against Brooklyn rival Medgar Evers at the West Quad Center.
The BC men saw their season-high losing streak stretched to four games Wednesday night at Old Westbury despite 18 points and seven rebounds off the bench by sophomore sensation Egzon Gjonbalaj of Brooklyn's FDR High School.
The slumping Bulldogs hope to get back in the win column Friday night against visiting Medgar Evers.
In other local college sports news, the St. Francis men's water polo team qualified for its second consecutive NCAA Final Four appearance with last weekend's 6-5 victory over UC-San Diego in Palo Alto, Calif.
Unfortunately, the Terriers, who finished third at last year's Final Four, went 0-2 in the national championship tournament, dropping a 10-3 decision to USC in the semifinals before losing the consolation match, 17-2, against Stanford on Sunday afternoon.
First-year coach Srdjan Mihaljevic did a brilliant job in leading the Terriers back to the NCAAs for the fourth time in the program's history.