FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The 2016-17 Northern Arizona women's basketball season could very well be looked back upon as the year the program turned around. Led by a grizzled senior class, the Lumberjacks navigated through a season of adversity and played an entertaining brand of basketball that uniquely fit the team's personnel.
Sure, the Lumberjacks' win total only saw a modest bump up from six wins to nine wins. But even the casual fan would say that this year's 'Jacks were a different product than years past.
"This was definitely a year where our players, especially our seniors, felt like they had something to prove," said interim head coach Robyne Bostick. "They wanted to show they were better than our record had indicated in the past, and we made a statement from our very first game winning at UTEP. It showed that we were going to prove people wrong about the expectations of our team coming into the season."
NAU finished the 2016-17 season with a 9-21 overall record and a 5-13 mark in conference play, with an increase of three Big Sky victories accounting for the overall improvement from a year ago.
Along with the improved win-loss record, the season was filled with individual efforts which captivated Lumberjack nation. Fans were introduced to redshirt junior Olivia Lucero – who earned All-Big Sky Third Team honors as the ninth-leading scorer in the conference at 14.8 points per game – and freshman Raina Perez – who led all conference freshman in scoring during league play. Seniors Rene Coggins and Brittani Lusain both joined the 1,000 point club, becoming the first pair of 1,000 point teammates in over a decade.
From the season opener, Lucero inserted her name among the Big Sky Conference's marquee players. In her first game as a Lumberjack, she played all 40 minutes and scored a team-high 19 points in guiding NAU to a 65-51 victory over UTEP. The win erased the team's demons in El Paso with the Lumberjacks coming out victorious at UTEP for the first time since 1986, including losses in each of the last three years.
NAU's firepower was on full display just two days inside the Rolle Activity Center with a 109-60 victory over Antelope Valley in its home opener. Courtesy of a school record 109 point performance featuring six players in double-figures, the 'Jacks started the season 2-0 for the first time in nine years and just the sixth time in school history.
The rest of the non-conference schedule saw its share of ups and downs, but the Lumberjacks entered the Big Sky season with confidence despite only a 4-7 record. The team's potential was apparent in their final game before the conference slate at Utah, where NAU went toe-to-toe against its undefeated – at the time – Pac-12 foe in an eventual 78-65 loss. Utah, who entered the December matchup with a No. 9 NCAA RPI ranking, had to stave off a determined NAU squad that trailed by just four points going into the final period.
"It took a little time for the team to fully understand what we were trying to do offensively and defensively with the changes we put in," Bostick said. "In the games that it really clicked, the team looked really good. We had a lot of weapons on offense and on defense we were helping each other and getting stops. Heading into Big Sky play, I was feeling pretty good about where we were."
The conference schedule could then be broken up into three segments, each distinctive from the next. NAU started the Big Sky slate with a bang on the final day of the 2016 calendar year, rallying for a 77-68 overtime win at Southern Utah behind Perez's best game to date. Perez's 18 points powered the Lumberjacks to their first conference opening road win since 2006, first overtime road win since 2008 and first win in Cedar City since 2013.
Over their next five games, the 'Jacks dropped four by a combined margin of 12 points before picking up an impressive win over Eastern Washington at home which matched their conference win total from last season in just six games. Still, a pivotal injury to redshirt junior Kenna McDavis – a starter in each of the first 14 games of the season – forced NAU to adjust its lineup.
McDavis would miss 13 straight contests, with a season-worst seven-game losing streak by the Lumberjacks following the Eastern Washington win right in the middle of her absence. Still, NAU pushed through and concluded the regular season with three wins in its final five games, including the program's first win on the road at Idaho in over 20 years.
"We started well with the overtime win at Southern Utah and to do well at any school in any conference, you have to stay healthy," Bostick said. "We got hit with the injury bug a little with Kenna going out first and then some other players missed games. What it did though was it gave other players the opportunity to step into different roles and once we got healthy it gave us confidence going into the tournament."
Riding the highs of its best five-game stretch of the season, NAU went into the Big Sky Tournament with momentum. The Lumberjacks, seeded 10th, faced Portland State in the opening round in Reno, but the season would come to an end with an 88-76 defeat.
The 'Jacks, paced by seven combined three-pointers from Perez and Coggins, knocked down 11 treys in their season finale bringing their season total to a school record 228. NAU smashed the previous record of 158 with five players (Coggins, Perez, Lucero, McDavis and senior Catelyn Preston) making at least 20. NAU's three-point barrage resulted in seven games with double-digit makes as a team, including a school-record tying 13 on Senior Day versus Portland State.
NAU also made the most of its trips to the charity stripe, as the team set a new single season school record in free throw percentage of .745.
Individually, Lucero led three Lumberjacks who averaged double-digit points per game with Coggins (11.5) and Perez (10.1) behind her. Senior Brittani Lusain and sophomore Kaleigh Paplow were among the conference's top rebounders at 6.8 and 6.7 per game respectively, while Coggins drilled a career-high 61 threes, which ranks as the sixth-highest season total in school history.
The 2016-17 season marked the end of the careers for six Lumberjack seniors. Coggins finds her name in multiple career categories including 12th in points, fourth in three-pointers made and free throw percentage, 10th in assists and second in minutes played. Lusain finished her career as the 16th member of the 1,000 point club along with being the only player in school history in the top 10 of rebounds (seventh) and assists (fourth). Senior Taylor Leyva led the team in three-point percentage for the second straight year at .380 and is 10th in career percentage from behind the arc. Coggins, Leyva, Preston and Bradlee Cotton all played more than 100 career games.
Despite the losses of a big senior class, NAU will return its leading scorer and rebounder respectively in Lucero and Paplow. Perez will take an eight-game double-digit scoring streak – the longest of any Lumberjack this season – into her sophomore campaign, while McDavis had scored in double-figures in four of her last five games before her injury.
"With the adversity that the team faced not only this season, but the last couple of years, it would've been understandable if they wanted to give up, but this team never gave in," Bostick said. "I'm really proud of what the team accomplished this season and I'm especially happy for our seniors. We have some really great pieces coming back next year and we laid a great foundation this year for the level of success this program can have in the coming years."
Between the four core returners, a developing group of underclassmen and a promising incoming class, the future remains bright for an NAU women's basketball program who will only look to build on the successes achieved this season.