After the 2003-04 women’s basketball season, Coach Debbie Taneyhill was reeling from a successful season. Her girls went 18-11 and won 11 games in the CAA. Of course, these were the days when Old Dominion ran the conference. They had won every regular season and every tournament in the conference since 1992.

This season, the Patriots sit in the middle of the conference with a 5-6 record, not quite like the early 2000s, but more reminiscent any year since. They’re coming around to playing CAA basketball.

by John Powell

“There’s another element on this level,” Coach Jeri Porter said. “There’s a mental and physical toughness, playing 40 minutes, being able to handle somebody’s run, and answer it.”

The Patriots took second place in the 2004 CAA tournament, losing to Old Dominion by an 85-81 final score and the Monarchs would continue to dominate the Atlantic seaboard through the 2008 season. But the conference was headed to change.

It was the Patriots last season with a winning record. The next year went a bit worse. A first-round CAA loss ended the season after an 8-10 conference mark. The 2006 season took them a round further before Old Dominion ended their postseason hopes again.

It was clear that the program had collapsed. Taneyhill won two conference games in 2007 and three in 2008. An eight-game losing streak was enough to end the coach’s career in Fairfax, officially a resignation.

Jeri Porter came to lead a dismal, disheartened team after that season and had little success. She won five conference games over the next two seasons, but last year showed a change. A 7-11 conference mark put the Patriots back into the conference conversation as new powers were on the rise.

“We have really, really challenged our kids to be tougher mentally, to be tougher physically,” Porter said. “You know, I think skill-wise, talent-wise, I feel like we can compete. With anybody in the league.”

Breakout starters like Taleia Moton, Amber Easter and Janaa Pickard were central to turning the program around.

Moton, already a disciple of Porter’s offense from her days at Radford, started off a bit slow, but hit her stride as the season progressed. The Patriots lost four of their first five conference games before turning it around. Moton had to compete with the best the conference had to offer.

Her 22-point-per-game average was central to the offense, and her 52 steals led the defense. Going in to yesterday’s game at James Madison, her scoring mark was 10th in the nation.

“That’s what college is all about, not having to be that one that has to score every night, even though that has become her role for us this year,” Porter said. “I think she’s comfortable in several different roles and has had to take on different roles over the course of her career.”

In taking the Player of the Week award three times this season, she had to topple national powers. Elena Delle Done, leading No. 12/13 Delaware’s historic season, has stood as the nation’s leading scorer with 28.4 points per game. VCU’s Courtney Hurt is second in the nation with 12.4 rebounds per game.

When Mason lost its sixth consecutive game at UNCW, those high expectations had nearly crashed. The team’s 6-game win streak, started after dropping a final-second loss to American, seemed all for naught.

“I think we’re growing up a bit and I think we learned a lot of things in the middle of losing that really – you couldn’t see it because we weren’t winning – but I think we learned a lot of good stuff that’s paying off for us now,” Porter said.

A three-game home stand turned the season around and the upperclassmen stepped up. Amber Easter picked up the rebounding lead – as a guard – with 6.1 per game, adding to her 44 assists.

Pickard, historically a good shot-blocker, leads the team with 37 blocks. Her total is more than double that of the second-place blocker on the team, fellow forward Evelyn Lewis, who has 17 on the season.

And team depth helps the overall scenario. Any starter can make a difference in any game. Even in a 45-49 loss at James Madison yesterday, Rahneeka Saunders, who usually pulls third billing as a guard, had the best statistical afternoon. Her 11 points was second only to Moton’s 13 and her 11 rebounds led the team.

The Patriots have seven games left in their schedule, four at home. Just three more wins in those seven would make their best record since going toe-to-toe with the Monarchs in 2004. Similar performances to the commanding win against VCU could give more momentum to a growing team.

The head coach realizes the importance of a maturing team.

“Kids grow up,” Porter said. “When you’re building, there is an element of maturing that people don’t see because freshmen are freshmen and seniors are seniors, and your seniors, even as freshmen, don’t look exactly the way you want them to.”

After yesterday’s loss, they will want revenge against the Dukes when they close out their season playing Kenny Brooks’ girls again at home.

Flashes of dominance will come back and if Jeri Porter has it her way, they’ll put those flashes together for the best finish Fairfax has seen in years.