By Matthew Pagels | firstname.lastname@example.org
The final minutes couldn’t go any slower for the Flagler women’s basketball team, but when the clock hit zero, they knew Feb. 20 will be a day to remember.
After winning only two games (four overall) last season, the women’s basketball team clinched a Peach Belt Conference playoff berth for the first time ever. The team is having a turnaround season, owning a conference record of 10-8 (13-11 overall). With two games left, they have the opportunity to have a winning season for the first time in five years, according to Head Coach Lang-Montgomery.
“We surprised everybody,” Lang-Montgomery said. “The fact that in the preseason we got picked to finish last, and now that we’re third place in our division, it made a statement.”
Last season marked Flagler’s worst record (2-16 conference record, 4-22 overall record) since joining the Peach Belt Conference in 2009. They placed last overall in the Peach Belt Conference.
“We wanted to come into this season with a big chip on our shoulder. We felt like we had a lot of talent and that we were better than last place,” Lang-Montgomery said.
“This year has been a year of a lot of firsts’ for us,” Lang-Montgomery said.
And the word “firsts” is underselling it. Let’s break it down:
1. It was the first time the women’s basketball program upset a nationally ranked team, beating USC Aiken (No. 12) earlier this season. Not only did they win, they did it by 25 points, tying their largest margin of victory this season.
2. From a statistical standpoint, point guard Williesha Spencer is the first Flagler Saint to even crack the top 10 in scoring, according to Lang-Montgomery. Spencer is the conference’s fifth-leading scorer, averaging 16.1 points per game.
3. Two Flagler Saints—Treva Mason and Shelbi Lindsey—are currently listed in the top 10 for rebounding. Through 40 games, Mason leads her team with 330 rebounds, placing her fourth in the conference and fifth overall for total rebounds.
4. For the first time ever, the women’s team clinched a Peach Belt Conference playoff berth.
Impressed? In the past three seasons, Flagler’s women’s basketball team ranked among the bottom half of the PBC in terms of overall team statistics, according to the official website of the Peach Belt Conference. Positive changes this season show the women’s record isn’t a fluke.
“We were pretty much fed up with being the last place team,” Lang-Montgomery said.
Senior Arianna Roper has been a part of the team since her freshman year, and nothing makes her happier than defying the critics.
“We’ve been put at the bottom every year and to finally send a message back saying they are wrong is one of the best feelings in the world.”
Roper has endured losing seasons during her four-year career at Flagler.
“It just makes me realize that all of those tough times got us to this point,” she said. “I think it’s made this year all the more special to those of us that have been here throughout the struggle. I can’t really explain how exciting it is to be a part of this team and I’m so happy I stayed with the program.”
Roper’s junior year was riddled with injuries, but she has come back even stronger as a leader this season.
“I haven’t had quite as many minutes this year after my return from my injury, but I work very hard to make my teammates better,” Ropera said. “They don’t come into practice for a walk in the park, and to me that helps a lot. I see so much potential in every single one of my teammates and I expect their best effort everyday.”
Fourth-year veteran Rachel Brown, 21, has also set an example for the younger players.
“Coming in this year, the seniors told the younger players that we are not having a season like last year,” she said. “We made that clear. We hold everyone accountable and have a lot of trust in each other. Everyone has this drive and passion that losing isn’t an option.”
Season after season passed by, but winning ceased to exist.
“Each year we saw as a new opportunity to change the program around, but nothing ever came together,” Brown said. “We didn’t have the greatest start to this year either, but we pushed through that, which is the difference between this year and others. We overcame adversity.”
A change of scenery has been key to this year’s success.
“For the new players this year, we had four transfers and freshmen that came in, so that has helped,” Lang-Montgomery said. “Also, the eight returnees really kind of made a pact that this year was going to be different, that they were going to do whatever it takes over the summer and off season to get themselves in better shape and work on their skills to help them have a better season.”
In the end, it all comes down to the coach. Flagler College’s Athletic Director Jud Damon hired Lang-Montgomery in 2009. Out of 275 applications, Damon chose her, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“I have a lot of trust and confidence in her, and I think she does so many things right,” Damon said
Lang-Montgomery was undermanned and faced the challenge of operating under an inferior facility ever since she was hired. She had struggled putting together a winning season in her first three years.
“You see the other facilities, they are arenas,” Damon said. “It’s not like this little gym [here], but that’s what we’re competing against when it comes to recruiting. Additionally, she didn’t have a full time assistant coach until this year, whereas all of our competitors had a full time assistant and at least one graduate assistant.”
Sharnesha Smith, former Stetson and professional basketball star, was assigned this season as Flagler’s first-ever full time assistant coach to help aid Lang-Montgomery.
“Yeah we needed to win more, but it’s not fair for me to put expectations up there if the resources are down here,” Damon said. “Expectations need to line up with resources. So we added a full time assistant coach and we added some scholarships, and she made it happen.”
Lang-Montgomery is glad she got the chance to turn the program around.
“I’m just truly thankful,” Lang-Montgomery said. “Obviously when you become a head coach you want to be successful and you want to win, and just to see how the past three years, how we had to work to get to this point.”
Not only has the women’s basketball team been successful on the court this season, but they have been successful off it as well. Earlier this month they hosted the “Think Pink Event” to help raise awareness for breast cancer.
“They do so much community involvement that nobody knows about,” Damon said. “She makes sure that her kids are doing a great job in the community, that they’re involved and doing things. She makes sure that the team handles themselves well and represents the program and the institution well. She makes sure they’re all doing well academically, too.”
According to Damon, the grade point average for the women’s basketball team is over a 3.0.
“She looks at the big picture,” Damon said. “It’s not about just winning. She’s built the program to where all these other things she’s done is an integral part of the women’s basketball experience at Flagler, and the winning was almost like the last piece of the puzzle.”
Flagler College was originally a part of the NAIA. In 2006, it made the move to NCAA Division II. The first two years were provisional years, meaning the team was not eligible for NCAA postseason competition until 2009, the year Jud Damon took over as Flagler College’s director of athletics.
“You’re transitioning your athletic department into NCAA Division II to compliance, so you’re complying with all the rules of Division II,” Damon said. “They make sure that you’re doing everything right, you’re not breaking any eligibility rules, you have the right staffing positions in place and your facilities are up to par. So then the third year, we were full NCAA Division II members.”
Flagler got accepted into the Peach Belt Conference on July 1, 2009, according to Damon. The 2009-10 season was its first year as members of the conference. Four seasons later, they secured their first playoff berth.
The top four teams from the East Division and top four from the West Division will battle it out for the conference title. In order to get to the NCAA regional tournament, Flagler is going to have to win the Peach Belt Conference tournament.
“Anything can happen,” Damon said. “We’re playing great right now. We could win the conference tournament and go to the NCAA, which would be amazing, after the seasons you’ve seen we had the last three years.”
It’s now time for the women’s team to take it to the next level.
“You don’t want to just show up,” Lang-Montgomery said. “We’ve accomplished the goal but we’d love to knock off some teams and see how far we can go. We want to finish strong, and we’re going to go down fighting.”
Photo by John Jordan