by John Torsiello
Fairfield women’s basketball Coach Joe Frager has had a tough act to follow the past several seasons … his own.
Taking over the program three years ago, Frager led the Stags to 22 wins, the fourth highest single season win total in the program’s history, in his first season on the job. Included among those victories were a win over Boston College, a second-place regular season Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) finish, and an appearance in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
“We raised the expectations right away,” said the former Southern Connecticut State University coach, who has earned six Coach of the Year awards and led his team to a Division II National Championship in 2007. “We had older kids on that team who wanted to win and bought into what we were doing.”
Frager’s subsequent teams have not disappointed. The Stags have averaged 20 wins a season under his leadership, including a 20-14 ledger this past year, a campaign during which they reached the finals of the MAAC tournament and won their first post-season game with a victory over Towson University in the Women’s Basketball Invitational.
The 2009-10 season could have turned out much differently. The Stags, beset by several key injuries, were 10-12 (4-7 in the MAAC) before they caught fire.
“We had it handed to us by St. Peter’s,” said the coach about an early loss, “and we had a talk after the game. We wanted the players to make a recommitment to certain things, such as scouting reports, and be more mentally tough.”
The team responded by winning nine straight games before losing to Marist in the finals of the MAAC Tournament.
“It was rewarding as a coach to see how we turned things around,” said Frager with a smile.
There’s a certain buzz around the Stag women that bodes well for the future.
“What we wanted to do when we started was to be consistently in the mix for the MAAC championship and be the best mid-major we can possibly be. Am I satisfied where we are? I wouldn’t say satisfied, I would say pleased. We’re certainly heading in the right direction.”
This year’s team was led by Stephanie Geehan ’10, Desiree Pina ’12, and Katelyn Linney ’13, all of whom averaged in double figures. Geehan, a senior from Braintree, Mass., who set the conference record for blocked shots, was selected to the All-MACC First Team, while Pina, a sophomore from Plainville, Conn., was chosen for the conference Third Team, and Linney, a freshman from Freehold, N.J., was chosen for the All-MAAC Rookie Team.
“The support we have received from the administration has been tremendous,” Frager continued. “To see Gene Doris, (athletics director), Mark Reed, (vice president of administration and student affairs), and University President Father (Jeffery P.) von Arx and others at the games is fantastic and not something you always see at other schools.”
Fairfield’s success will carry over to the school’s recruitment of new stars, Frager believes. The Stags have gone from chasing top regional high school players to traveling around the country and abroad to seek out recruits.
Frager concluded: “Having had the success we have had certainly makes it easier to get into kids’ living rooms.”
The Fairfield men’s team came oh-so-close to making the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) elite field of 65, losing a tough game to Siena in the MAAC tournament championship game.
Despite the disappointing loss, the Stags won 23 games, the second most in school history. Head Coach Ed Cooley, in his fourth season at the post, was the recipient of the 2010 Ben Jobe National Coach of the Year Award, presented annually to the top minority coach in Division 1 college basketball.
Fairfield, which lost to Creighton in the post-season CollegeInsider.com Tournament, has improved its win total in each season under Cooley.
“My entire approach when taking the job here was that we were going to win doing it the right way. I wanted to establish a program, not just a team. We’re building brick by brick so that we have long-lasting success.”
Cooley, a graduate of Stonehill College, came to Fairfield from Boston College, where he served as an assistant coach under Al Skinner.
This year’s men’s team was led in scoring by Derek Needham ’13, Anthony Johnson ’10, and Yorel Hawkins ’11. Mike Evanovich ’10 led the team in three-point field goals, and set a school record with nine three-point field goals in the team’s 27-point come-from-behind win against George Mason. Johnson, from Lake Wales, Fla., was named to the All-MAAC First Team, while Needham, a freshman from Dolton, Ill., was named to the Second Team and All-Rookie Team.
Included in Fairfield’s victories this season was a thrilling win over George Mason in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. The Stags trailed, 63-36, with 16 minutes remaining in the game before rallying to win in overtime.
Similar to the women, the men’s success will pay dividends on the recruiting trail, Cooley said.
“Everybody wants to be a part of a winner. And I want a kid who wants us. I always say that I want to be married to the player for life. We look for character-based individuals who are appropriate for the University and its mission. I want kids who want to be here and want to wear Fairfield’s colors.”
The Stags have several top recruits coming in for the 2010-11 season: Jamel Fields, Adam Jones, and Keith Matthews. Fields is a 6-foot 1-inch guard from Albany, N.Y.; Jones, is a 6-foot 8-inch forward from Winter Park, Fla.; and Matthews, a 6-foot 5-inch forward from Sebastian, Fla.
As for next season’s prospects, Cooley said, tongue-in-cheek, “You know coaches are always going to say their team will stink. But we have some pieces in place and veteran guys who have played valuable minutes for us. A lot will depend upon what our guys do this summer, how they take care of their bodies and apply themselves academically.”
Cooley said his goal is simple and clear.
“I want us to be one of the best teams in the league year in and year out. We want to contend for the MAAC championship and make it into the NCAA tournament.”
Again, it’s all about elevated expect-ations. And at Fairfield University, that’s a very good thing.
Title photo: Desiree Pina ’12