Blair, Mount on rise

Women's basketball: At 29, second-year coach Vanessa Blair is young enough to look like one of Mount St. Mary's players, but her 34-12 record has caught the attention of her coaching peers.

February 05, 2000|By James Giza | James Giza,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Spend some time with Vanessa Blair and her players and it's easy to forget which one is the coach.

At 29, the Mount St. Mary's women's basketball coach seems so youthful that she blends right in. But among her peers, she is already beginning to stand out. Selected Northeastern Conference Coach of the Year last season, Blair received the honor in her rookie season at her alma mater.

She guided the small college to the regular-season conference championship with an 18-2 record (21-7 overall) and took her team to the NEC tournament semifinals. It helped that the team returned all five starters. But her results were impressive for anyone's first year, especially considering her prior experience was as an assistant for two years to her former coach and mentor, Bill Sheahan.

If there were people who doubted Blair's capabilities to succeed longtime Mount coach Sheahan -- and she had her share of naysayers -- Blair was certainly not one to doubt being ready. "As far as years in service before you become a head coach go," she said, "I don't know if you could put a number on that."

This season, despite facing challenges both on and off the court, Blair and her team, who play at Quinnipiac at 1 p.m. today, are tied for the conference's top spot with St. Francis (Pa.), both with identical records (13-5 overall, 8-1 in league).

A torn knee ligament sidelined fifth-year senior forward Megan Gardiner, who underwent surgery in November. Gardiner, selected NEC Player of the Year last season with 20.7 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, has only recently again played more than 30 minutes a game.

"Megan was a big part of our offense last year," Blair said. "Once we got into conference play, I think it has been tough for them playing to the other teams' levels instead of to their own."

To adjust the offense, Blair has had to move the 5-foot-10 Gardiner out on the wing and put Kia Williams at power forward. The junior has thrived, dominating in the paint and averaging 17.5 points and 8.8 rebounds.

Blair said her task now is to keep her players level-headed and ensure they save their best ball for conference tournament time. "I'm trying to get our team to slowly peak toward March," she said. "We can't get big-headed and think we've done anything yet."

Not that Blair hasn't met challenges before in her young coaching career.

Before Sheahan's diabetes forced him into sudden retirement after 18 seasons, he held the fifth-highest winning percentage among active Division I women's basketball coaches. Blair, a standout center for the Mount from 1988 to 1992, took over two months before the 1998-99 regular season was slated to begin.

Struggling to assert her own coaching identity in the preseason, she was wary of deviating from the way her predecessor had run practices. However, with Sheahan encouraging her to exert herself, Blair finally went for it. "And all of the sudden things are changing," recalled Blair. "But kids are so resilient, I have found. Of course, they had a hard time with their coach leaving. But they respected me, and they bounced back. And we had a great year."

It sounds strange to hear Blair refer to her players as kids since she is just seven or eight years older than several of them. This proximity in age troubled her at first. How could she command the proper respect, she worried? But her doubts were quashed as her youth revealed itself to be an advantage.

Not far removed from her own collegiate and professional playing days -- she played in Europe from 1992 to 1994 and was named NEC Player of the Decade in 1996 -- the lithe 6-foot-1 Blair revels in her ability to suit up and hold her own.

"A lot of times I have to practice with them when we have injuries, which is a good thing," she said. "That's their chance to beat up Coach. I feel those the next morning. But then it's a chance for me also to, instead of saying, `Try this,' or `Do this,' I'm doing it. And then I talk a little trash like, `I dogged you.' But that's the part that makes our team so close, because I'm still young enough to get out there and do it with them, and they respect me for that."

Just as she dishes it, Blair takes it, players said. "I love pushing her around," said forward Deanna Butters, "because you don't normally get to do that with your coach. And if I make something on her or our team scores, we let her hear about it."

During games Blair often gets so engrossed in the action that she thinks there's a number on her back, too. "I tell my girls I have got to wear 2- or 3-inch heels so I can remind myself not to check in," she said.

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