ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Five months ago, questions surrounded the Elon University women’s basketball team.
The Phoenix had to replace 1,000-point scorer Kelsey Evans and 2,000-point scorer Ali Ford.
Kelsey Harris was the team’s lone senior and was being thrown into a leadership role.
High expectations surrounded all four freshmen.
With the 2013-14 season now in the rearview mirror, Elon has been through what head coach Charlotte Smith called “a movie.”
“I am incredibly proud of this basketball team,” Smith said after Elon dropped its Southern Conference semifinal game against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 77-44 March 9. “I could tell stories about everything this team has had to endure throughout the entire season. I’m proud of the fact that we have done a great job of persevering through a lot of difficult things.”
The difficulties began in the preseason when sophomore guards Nicole Razor and Jessica Farmer suffered injuries that kept them out until December. Freshman forward Mackenzie Darrah was next, tearing her ACL and forcing the 6-foot-4-inch recruit to take the year off.
The team withstood so many injuries that it was unable to partake in a scheduled intrasquad scrimmage at Elon’s “Late Night with the Phoenix” event Oct. 18 in Alumni Gym. Junior forward Sam Coffer and freshman forward Jenifer Rhodes also missed action in the team’s exhibition and regular season opener, respectively.
A challenging start to the regular season included losses to talented teams such as Virginia Commonwealth University, East Carolina University, Vanderbilt University, North Carolina State University and West Virginia University. The rocky start continued in Southern Conference play as the Phoenix dropped a game at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who went on to finish the season 3-15 in conference.
“The Southern Conference is an outstanding conference,” Smith said. “It’s a very competitive conference, and you see that from just the standings this year. Every night you had to be prepared to fight. No games were easy.”
Elon was able to finish with a 10-8 conference record, partially because of the breakout performances of freshmen Rhodes, Lauren Brown and Lenaira Ruffin. All three won SoCon Freshman of the Week honors at least once during the season. Rhodes, the SoCon Freshman of the Year (as voted by the league’s coaches), averaged 9.4 points per game and snared 5.3 rebounds per game. Brown, the team’s starting point guard for a majority of the season, averaged 8.1 points per game. There were moments of adjustment. But overall, the Phoenix freshmen proved the future is bright.
“Our youth played a big part in a lot of things today,” Smith said after the Chattanooga loss. “But we’re going to get better. We’re excited about the future of this team.”
Harris echoed her coach’s sentiments.
“Our youth showed today in a lot of areas,” she said. “It’s just another game for us to get better.”
Adversity struck again when Smith was forced to miss a game against UNCG on Feb. 1 because of two deaths in her family. Elon carried on and scored 80 points in a 23-point triumph under interim head coach Cristy McKinney.
Harris, the lone senior on the team, will be the only loss heading into the 2014-15 season and the team’s first year in the Colonial Athletic Association. Elon will have three key seniors — guard Zora Stephenson and forwards Shannen Cochraham and Coffer — along with an established junior class and an experienced group of sophomores.
As the lack of experience turns to veteran talent, the sky is the limit in a new league for the Phoenix, one devoid of perennial power Chattanooga. Even as Elon enters a new conference, the team will not be the same without Harris.
“It’s been a great four years,” she said. “Great coaching staff, great teammates, so I’m just trying to take it all in. We’ve had a lot of difficulties this season, a lot of injuries.”
The season has come to a close, and Harris is on her way out, but one thing is in place for the future: a foundation. Elon women’s basketball will return in November with a new league and a bright future.