By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Her college diploma is from Virginia Tech, where she played basketball and later worked as an assistant coach. Still, Katie O’Connor finds it easy to sell her new school to recruits — even if her former Tech classmates like to needle her about working for the University of Virginia.
“I think in all different facets, it’s kind of got everything that you want,” O’Connor said of UVa, where in May she joined the staff of new women’s basketball coach Joanne Boyle.
“You have a great head coach who’s had proven success as a player and as a coach at every single level. You have a university that’s got a tremendous academic reputation. You have facilities that are the best in the conference and certainly some of the top in the country. And so that for me just shows a support and a commitment from the administration’s standpoint.”
That enthusiasm is evident throughout John Paul Jones Arena, where new faces abound in the women’s hoops office.
Boyle, whom UVa hired away from the University of California in April, has assembled a staff that consists of assistant coaches O’Connor, Kim Hairston and Cory McNeill, director of operations Sarah Holsinger, video coordinator James Rogol and administrative assistant Hadley Zeavin.
Mike Curtis, Tony Bennett’s strength-and-conditioning coach for the past two seasons, is now overseeing the women’s training as well.
“I have a lot of experience on my staff,” Boyle said. “So I have capable people that take things off my plate, which when you’re trying to build a program allows me to do what I do and hopefully can do well, and that is spend a lot of time on the phone recruiting and having people on campus and spending a lot of time with them.”
The staff’s collective goal is to restore to national prominence a program that played in three consecutive Final Fours in the early 1990s.
“UVa back in the day was the place to be,” McNeill said. “A lot of kids, when you talk to them now, their parents remember that history, and the kids don’t know it until they come and visit. So one of the biggest things we’ve been trying to do with kids from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area is get them down here on a visit, so they can see what we have to offer, and just see that there’s new blood here and we’re trying to get it back to what it was.”
Not since 2000 have the Wahoos advanced to the Sweet 16. The ‘Hoos finished 19-16 in 2010-11 — their 34th and final season under Hall of Fame coach Debbie Ryan — after losing in the WNIT quarterfinals.
“There’s no reason why the University of Virginia can’t be in conversations with the elite recruits in the country,” said Hairston, who previously worked for Boyle at Richmond and Cal. “It has everything there is to offer: a beautiful campus, the No. 2 public school in the country, probably a top-3 facility in the country, great location, one of the top conferences in the country. So there’s just so much here to sell.”
And that’s what the coaching staff has been doing this month. The July recruiting calendar for Division I women’s basketball mirrors that of the men’s game, and Boyle and her assistants have been on the road more than they’ve been in Charlottesville.
Hairston, who grew up in Bassett, began her college career at Radford before transferring to Richmond, from which she graduated in 2000. Her other coaching stops include James Madison University.
“Just being from the state of Virginia, and having played here, the University of Virginia is the university in the state of Virginia,” Hairston said. “So being able to come back and work at an institution like this, and being able to go out and have VIRGINIA written across my chest, it’s a huge honor to be able to represent this school and the ACC. You walk in and you have a smile on your face, because people immediately know who you are, and it’s good to be back. It’s good to be back in the state of Virginia. It’s good to be back working with Joanne.
“The whole staff, we’re extremely excited about we want for this program and where we know it can be.”
Hairston spent two seasons on Boyle’s staff at Cal before taking an assistant’s job at Georgia. Her decision to leave Berkeley had nothing to do with Boyle.
“California is too far,” Hairston said. “I missed home. My family is very important to me. They’re extremely supportive, especially my mom, and only getting to see her once a year — she’s in Bassett, Virginia, along with my brothers — that was pretty tough.
“Like I told Joanne: If we could have taken the University of California and moved it to the East Coast, I’d have stayed with her. But it’s just too far.”
McNeill is from Baltimore, and that’s where he and Hairston will be married Aug. 7. They met at the women’s Final Four in Tampa three years ago, when Hairston was at Georgia and McNeill at Georgetown.
To say this is an unusual summer for them would be an understatement.
“People don’t ask me, ‘How’s recruiting going?’ ” Hairston said with a laugh. “They ask, ‘How’s the wedding planning going?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s going.’ It’s stressful. I’m pulling my hair out with recruiting and then dealing with the wedding.”
The seniors on Ryan’s final team were Paulisha Kellum (6.6 ppg) and Jayna Hartig (0.7). Two players who had eligibility remaining — twins Whitny and Britny Edwards — graduated from Virginia in three years and will complete their college careers at East Carolina, where their father, Blue Edwards, starred. But the Wahoos return 10 of their top 12 scorers from the 2010-11 team and have added 6-2 freshman Sarah Imovbioh, a Parade All-American from nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School.
“I think we’ve got a good group,” said McNeill, who was Georgetown’s defensive coordinator. “They’re eager to learn, they’re hungry, and I think we’re going to surprise some people next year. A lot of people have written Virginia basketball off. I wouldn’t do that. I think we’ve got pieces here that we can really do some good things with next year, and then add some more pieces in the future to make it better.”
Hairston is known for her recruiting prowess. Asked what makes her so effective, she said, “I think it’s my ability to relate with anyone, anybody, any kind of kid, to be able to develop those relationships. Because in women’s basketball, I think that’s even more key. Girls want to know that you care, and they want to know that it’s not just about basketball. I really feel like I do a good job of developing those relationships with the kids and their parents.”
Boyle considers recruiting a huge part of her job as well. That’s one of the lessons she learned as an assistant at Duke, her alma mater, under Gail Goestenkors, who’s now at Texas.
“I think if a parent’s going to allow her kid to come to a school, then they need to know who I am, inside and out, and my thoughts and my vision for the program, my vision for their daughter,” Boyle said.
By the time Boyle’s staff was in place, many of the best prospects in the nation’s Class of 2012 had committed or narrowed their finalists to a handful of schools.
“So we’re doing the best we can with what’s still out there, to try to bring in some good kids,” Hairston said. “But the younger kids, the ’13s and the ’14s and the ’15s, are a really big focus for us, because we’ve got time. We’ve got time to develop those relationships and get our names out there and get on the phone with some kids and some coaches.”
John Paul Jones Arena is a major selling point. When O’Connor played (and coached) at Virginia Tech, the home of UVa hoops was University Hall, no jewel even then. She was an assistant at Kansas from 2004-05 until 2010-11 and had not been inside JPJ before interviewing with Boyle in the spring.
“The only thing I remembered was U-Hall, so when I came here and saw this, this is obviously fairly stunning from a lot of different standpoints,” said O’Connor, whose father, Kevin, is general manager of the NBA’s Utah Jazz.
O’Connor spent much of her childhood in Chapel Hill, N.C., and attended high school in Durham. She still remembers the era during which players such as Dawn Staley and Tonya Cardoza and Tammi Reiss and the Burge twins suited up for UVa.
“I grew up watching that team that went to the Final Fours,” O’Connor said. “Those people were role models for me. Not everybody understands that there’s a tremendous and rich tradition here, a great history here. But I think people still would view this as a place that you can build a championship program.
“We’ve just got to win some more games, and that’s the bottom line. Perception is kind of reality, and a lot of people will form that perception based on a number, which a lot of times is the amount of games that you win.”