Gaitley leads Fordham's revival

Stephanie Gaitley's direct but personable approach has been the perfect mix for rebuilding the Rams. AP Photo/Mel Evans

NEW YORK -- It's been a long time since Fordham had a women's basketball team to be proud of. Anne O'Connell remembers. She was on the school's last team that really stood out, reaching the postseason all four years when she played as Anne Gregory. She was grabbing her 2,000th career rebound in her final game when she fouled out on an over-the-back call. She made the AIAW record books with 1,999, and waited for the wins to return to Rose Hill gymnasium again.

It was a long wait.

"They've honored my team enough," said O'Connell, who graduated in 1980. "And I love what they've done for our team over the years, but they need a new team to honor."

This season, that team has arrived. Fordham, under second-year coach Stephanie Gaitley, is 22-7. The Rams have a first-round bye as the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament, which starts Friday at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

There have been plenty of bumps along the way. Gaitley left Monmouth for Fordham, bringing along guard Erin Rooney by way of New Zealand and targeting South Carolina transfer Marah Strickland.

Rooney, who averages 14.4 points, almost didn't transfer because Fordham didn't have the neuroscience concentration she wanted to study. This was after Gaitley convinced Rooney to return to the U.S. after a major case of homesickness her freshman year at Monmouth. The good news: Fordham added her major the summer before Rooney was to transfer, which she found out when she went through the interview process as a courtesy to Gaitley.

Strickland, a forward who leads the team in scoring at 14.7 points per game, played at Maryland her freshman and sophomore seasons before transferring to South Carolina. After sitting out a season when she transferred to Fordham, Strickland was granted an extra year of eligibility because of hyperthyroidism.

And then there's the team's point guard. In the middle of this season, Gaitley sat down with Arielle "Ace" Collins. The coach questioned whether Collins was giving the team all she had. It was difficult, but Gaitley, who is both direct and personable, pulled it off.

"I just felt if she was all in we were going to be really good," Gaitley said.

Collins said it was an uncomfortable conversation.

"It was definitely hard because I did want to be here and I did understand how great we could be this year," said Collins, a senior. "It was a wake-up call."

The conversation brought the coach and player closer, and ultimately helped Collins deal with the expectations that were weighing her down. Since their December talk, the Rams have surged.

Gaitley hopes this team's success will help with recruiting. It means she has a lot of hand-shaking to do, something she's comfortable with given her 27 years as a head coach. In her first year at Fordham, she couldn't sell wins to recruits, so she had to sell her own record.

"I'm not comfortable with that," Gaitley said. "I told my assistants I'm not going to sit and say, 'Oh my God, guess what? I'm a really great coach!' It's not me, it's not my makeup."

Rose Hill, the throwback gym the Rams play in, has a basketball tradition, but it's been almost exclusively male. So Gaitley and her players talk about forging a new tradition.

"There's nothing like going back to your alma mater and feeling like you were part of something special," Gaitley said.

Just ask Anne O'Connell. She will be honored on court on March 16, the day of the women's A-10 championship game. No doubt the current Rams would love to be cheering her on -- before they get ready to play.