Seniors: from 4-24 to NCAA

3 UMBC

Rohde, Hughes and Luttrell form nucleus of transformed program

NCAA women's tournament

March 18, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Reporter

It's the power of television, the prestige of the NCAA tournament, the chance to make another pitch to high school recruits.

UMBC's appearance in the NCAA Division I women's basketball tournament tonight in Hartford, Conn., is about all of that. But it's mostly about the three seniors who took it on the chin as freshmen, playing through a dreary 4-24 season, but found a way to change the image of the program in the end.

The finishing touches on the makeover came last week, when the Retrievers (16-16) upended Hartford in the America East Conference tournament championship game, a victory that earned an automatic NCAA bid, the 16th seed and a date with Connecticut (29-3) at approximately 9:30 p.m.

Have the Retrievers arrived?

"I think so," coach Phil Stern said. "We're on the biggest stage you could be on."

It was a long trip for seniors Sharri Rohde, Brittnie Hughes and Heather Luttrell, who are tri-captains. They were recruited during Stern's first year at UMBC, when the school was still in the Northeast Conference. Before they hit campus, the Retrievers moved to America East, a climb of several positions in conference Rating Percentage Index rankings.

Their first basketball season was marked by change and perseverance.

"Terrible. No one wants to lose," said Hughes, the point guard in the team's Princeton offense. "I came from a winning team in high school."

Said Rohde: "I remember we had some people leave before we got here, and some girls that came in with us also transferred out. It was tough, but it made our bonds stronger and makes this more sweet."

A 5-foot-11 forward from Indianapolis, Rohde has started all 116 games in her UMBC career. She is just the 10th Retriever to collect 1,000 points and 500 rebounds.

Stern also got Luttrell out of Indiana (Kokomo) and recruited Hughes from Roanoke, Va. A year later, he went back to Indiana (Avon) to recruit Kristin Drabyn, a 5-7 junior guard who ranks sixth in school history with 97 three-point field goals.

Stern recruited in Indiana the first time because he got a late start after getting hired in August 2002. He has players from seven states on his roster, five recruits from Maryland.

"We would love to stay locally, but we have not had a lot of success in this area because I think we were looked upon differently than some of the other schools in the area," Stern said. "That could change now.

"With the NCAA tournament, people should recognize us as a legitimate D-I women's basketball program that, year in and year out, can compete to do something like this."

Recognition has not come easily in Stern's five seasons. Before the Retrievers won the America East title, it was difficult even on campus.

"Our young ladies are celebrities right now," Stern said. "People that didn't know them when we left here [for the conference tournament] know who they are."

It would be nice, Drabyn said, if just the locals knew who the Retrievers were. But it's routine for the team to walk through BWI Marshall Airport and be asked what UMBC stands for.

"They ask are we Division I, where are we located. ... And we're just five minutes away [from BWI]," Drabyn said. "It's crazy.

"But the craziest thing is, the last couple of days when we've been out, people recognize us. Just a week ago, nobody would look twice at a UMBC sweat shirt."

That's why Dr. Charles Brown, the school's director of athletics, doesn't mind going up to Hartford to face the powerhouse Huskies in their territory.

"I look at it as an opportunity to get our name on the national stage against one of the most storied programs in the history of women's basketball," Brown said. "I don't see any loss. If we handle it properly, it's win-win."

It probably won't be win-win on the bottom-line budget, though. Brown said he hopes to break even with a travel party of 75. The NCAA covers the school's expenses and reimburses later.

"There are a lot of people who worked hard with the team, like the team doctor, that we don't want to leave behind," he said. "We will bring a little more than might be necessary, but we think in the long run that really helps us."

The real payoff could come in recruiting. Stern, who coached two years at Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y., and four at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, already has gotten commitments from three prize recruits for next season. He beat out two Ivy League schools to get point guard Michele Brokans from Lansdale, Pa., and forward Meghan Colabella from Montclair, N.J.

Chrissy Robinson, a 6-3 post player from Patuxent High, will join her sister Amanda next season, as well.

"I came here because Coach Stern said he was going to elevate this program from what it used to be," said sophomore guard Stacy Hunt (South River). "He said that UMBC was about to be put on the map. That's what he told each one of us, and we believed him and that's why we came here."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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