FAIRMONT — Fairmont girls basketball coach Chris Rodriguez offers a challenge to his senior point guard Anasia Evans during practice.
“See if you can touch the net,” Rodriguez says with a smile to Evans, who stands a mere 4 feet, 9 inches. Evans crouches into a running start, springs from her left leg and narrowly misses the nylon with her fingertips.
Rodriguez and Evans share a laugh. But for just a moment. Practice isn’t done yet.
The Lady Golden Tornadoes put the finishing touches on their session, running through their halfcourt offense in preparation for a non-conference contest with South Brunswick. The players are pin-pointing the placements of their high-low passing from the elbow to the block.
Rodriguez emphasizes crisp passes, and the lazy lobs subside. He calls for more motion, and the squeaks of the sneakers pick up pace.
Fairmont went on to beat South Brunswick, 67-53, on Thursday to improve to 7-4 heading into the Christmas break.
“We joke and goof off every once in awhile,” said Evans, a senior captain, “but when it comes time to doing what you go to do … Coach, he always tells us it’s time to put your hard hats on and go to work.”
So far this season, that mix of mentalities is paying off.
In fact, the second-year coach Rodriguez and the Fairmont girls are off to the program’s best start since Fairmont High standouts Monique Floyd and Shania Powell donned black and gold threads. Back in the 2006-07 season, Floyd, who went on to play for Division I UNC-Greensboro, and Powell, who played for NJCAA Lenoir Community College, led Fairmont to a 14-7 record under head coach Travis Kemp. That squad was also the last Fairmont girls team to finish in the top-tier of its conference, going 9-3 for third place in the then-Southeastern Conference.
After Kemp hung up his whistle after that season, the Lady Golden Tornadoes went through three head coaches in four years — Chavis McMillan, Marilyn Bracey, Billie McDowell — while sputtering to dismal losing records, early exits in the Robeson County Shootout and fifth-place or lower finishes in the conference.
The Fairmont girls basketball program was in shambles and in need of a coach. Rodriguez, who was serving as the junior varsity boys head coach at the time, offered to step in last year to try to build the program back into a winner.
“It’s trying to get them to think they can win instead of expecting to lose,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the whole mindset. It’s more mental than it is physical.”
Fairmont was a combined 6-34 the previous two season before Rodriguez picked up the clipboard. Since then, the Lady Golden Tornadoes have won 13 games.
Additionally playing a major role in Fairmont’s shift has been the aforementioned Evans, the 4-9 senior point guard with an endless motor.
“She’s the tough test kid, boy or girl, that I’ve coached,” Rodriguez said. “She hustles like Deonte’ Smith used to for the boys two year ago. Those kids will give their right leg and arm to get the ball.
“She’s the heart and soul and she’s been here for four years.”
Evans led Robeson County in scoring (20 PPG) last season and has kept the pace this season with an 18-point average through 11 games. More importantly, this year she’s got weapons to feed on the wings and in the paint, notably sophomore Na’Jewel Ingram, a transfer from Purnell Swett, who’s posting 14.5 points a night.
“We started to communicate more, and you can say that the chemistry is starting to get there,” Evans said. “The past years we really haven’t had people to step up a lot. Now, this year, people want to step up. This being my senior year, I’m glad.”
“It’s been a good season playing with her,” Ingram said of Evans. “She’s good a player, a good point guard, and a good teammate to play with.”
Behind Evans and Ingram, Fairmont marched to a third-place finish with a win over rival Red Springs in the Robeson County Shootout two weekends ago.
It was exactly the kind of statement the Lady Golden Tornadoes hoped to make before the Three Rivers Conference season tips off. Fairmont opens league play on Jan. 11 at South Robeson.
“Beating Red Springs (in the Shootout) is big because it kind of helps us set the tone for the conference,” Rodriguez said. “We’d love to be able to hang another banner up there of a conference championship. We’d love that. That’s what we’re working to.”
Reach Sports editor Kaleb Roedel at 910-272-6111 or email@example.com.