A Sendoff for Coach Barefoot

Of all the memories I have of calling Elon Women’s Basketball games this year, the one that will standout the most in my mind will be a long road trip in January to Alabama and Tennessee. The Elon Phoenix were 7-5 and after losing their first two conference games, a 110-67 decimating from Appalachian State and a 74-64 loss to Western Carolina, they were starting to make noise in Southern Conference play, winning three straight. The team was preparing for maybe it’s toughest two game stretch of the year, facing the eventual SoCon tournament champions, the Samford Bulldogs, and the Chattanooga Lady Mocs, who have won 8 of the last 11 conference tournaments. The Phoenix historically wasn’t a team that could hang with the big guns in SoCon play. They were at least a manageable 1-4 lifetime vs. Samford, but a 1-14 overall record vs. Chat shows how tough it’s been for the Phoenix to come by wins against top-notch teams since moving to the Southern Conference in 2003. It was simple. The Phoenix just weren’t supposed to win games like these.

But they did win.

Samford entered the game third in the entire nation in three-point field goals per game (8.6) but the Phoenix defensive game plan forced the Bulldogs to shoot an awful 5-29 (17.2%) from beyond the arc. Elon won 47-42.

Two days later, down 30-26 with seconds to go before halftime, Shon Redmond made a quick steal, ran all the way up the court, and got off a last second layup to give the Phoenix what myself and play-by-play broadcaster that day Brian Dudiak called a “momentum builder” to go into the locker room. The Phoenix came out in the second half and scored 46 points, led by 16 from Aiesha Harper in her breakout game of the season, outrebounded the Mocs 48-26, and upset Chattanooga 74-61.

That night coming back from Tennessee, we got caught in a dangerous snowstorm and had to stop in Knoxville. Brian and I used this time to talk about the amazing trip and what we would later refer to now as the turning point in quite possibly Elon Women’s Basketball history. These two road wins ushered in not only a confidence about the team, but a wake up call to the rest of the Southern Conference that Elon was no longer going to be pushed around. They would not give in to any opponent without a fight for 40 minutes. They would leave everything on the floor no matter whom they were playing. And they would no longer settle for less than what they wanted.

The old way of looking at Elon Women’s Basketball was long gone. Their demeanor, their drive, their attitude, and their heart matched that of their coach. The Phoenix was now Coach Karen Barefoot’s team.

That’s why the news was so tough to hear for the Elon University athletic community on June 8th, but it was a day that many people new would eventually come. Old Dominion University announced Karen Barefoot was the new head coach of the Lady Monarchs, the 6th coach in school history, and the first new hire of the program since 1987.

Barefoot now takes over a program that is rich in history but is down on their luck recently. When the former Elon coach was at ODU as an assistant from 2005-06 to 2007-08, the team went 77-23 and was consistently in the top 25, getting as high as 11th in the country. She helped lead the Monarchs to three-straight Colonial Athletic Association titles resulting in trips to the NCAA Tournament every single year, including a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2007-08.

But since Barefoot’s departure, Old Dominion has missed the tourney all three seasons. For a team that has won three National Championships (1979, 1980 AIAW, 1985 NCAA, also lost in the ’97 NCAA title game), won 17 straight Conference Titles from 1992-2008 and expects to be competitive every season, that simply cannot do. Wendy Larry, who Barefoot was an assistant under with the Lady Monarchs, was out after 24 years as head coach and the Phoenix coach has been selected to get the program back on its feet.

Coach Barefoot has always been a winner. If you need proof, look at her resume. As a player at Christopher Newport, she was a three-time Kodiak/WBCA All American. She led the entire nation in assists all four years at school. She is a member of the Christopher Newport Hall of Fame and has her jersey retired at the school. And if you need further proof, she was the only player in men’s or women’s college basketball to ever record more than 2000 points and 1000 assists in a college career until Gonzaga’s Courtney Vandersloot joined her this past season.

Her coaching career is just as impressive. Not only did she help start the first female athletic program in the 75-year history of the Apprentice School, but put together a 102-43 record, was named NSCAA National Coach of the Year twice (1999, 2001), and won the 2001 NSCAA National Championship. In four seasons at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, she put together a 70-44 record, won the school’s first South Atlantic Conference tournament title in 2002-03, won the first ever SAC regular season championship in 2003-04, and was also named the Conference’s Coach of the Year in 03-04. The next three seasons, she helped landed her first Division I coaching job as an assistant at Old Dominion.

Then came her masterpiece. When she became the fifth coach in Elon Women’s Basketball history before the 2008-09 season, she inherited a program that had yet to encounter any real success since making the jump to Division I athletics in 1999-00. Yet in three seasons, Barefoot took a team that in her first year went 5-26 and increased the Phoenix win total by 15 in just two seasons. She won an Elon Division I record 20 games, the first time that the team had ever eclipsed the 20 win mark, and finished 4th in the Southern Conference standings. Their 4 seed heading into to this year’s SoCon Tournament in Chattanooga was the highest ever for Elon and was the first year they ever received a first round bye in tournament play.

Barefoot also won at least one game every year at the Southern Conference tournament, posting a 3-3 mark in the leagues postseason. Coach also recorded another important first for the program this season when she lead Elon to their first ever postseason tournament, the Women’s Basketball Invitational, where the Phoenix creamed USC Upstate 103-72 before losing to the eventual champs, UAB.

One of Barefoot’s strengths as well was her ability to recruit. After her first season at the helm, she brought in 2010-11 second team All SoCon members Ali Ford (who was also named SoCon Freshman of the Year) and Kelsey Evans who were the leading scorer and rebounder respectively on the team. Barefoot added to the roster with plenty of young talent, also bringing in starter Lei Lei Hairston and Lisa Archie. This year Barefoot added freshmen Kelsey Harris and Candice Silas, who both played large roles on the team in their first seasons, and added Junior College transfer Shon Redmond, who brought leadership and experience to the roster until she was shut down with a season ending knee injury. This season was Coach’s biggest crop yet. She added five players to the Phoenix squad in the 71st ranked recruiting class in the nation, second highest ranked class in the SoCon, and the highest ranked class in Elon history.

Not only was Barefoot able to create excitement within her team and staff, but she also built up a strong following with the fan base and community at Elon. Since Coach Barefoot took over, average attendance at Alumni Gym rose every single season. This year marked the highest average attendance in school history (527 fans per game) and also the highest ever attended single game for the women’s team (1,071 fans vs. Samford). Barefoot got people in the seats not only because of how well the Phoenix performed at home (11 home wins this season matches the school’s D-I record), but also because of how appreciative she was of the fan base. After every single game, she would mention how the support of the fans that came out to watch the team play in their newly renovated home, on the road, or tuned in to the radio broadcasts were such a boost for the team and gave them the extra push when they needed it.

I’ll remember so much from this past season of calling Elon Women’s Basketball. I’ll remember Coach Barefoot and her staff making us feel a part of the team on road trips. I’ll remember the countless interviews I had with her after games and the Elon Phoenix Weekly, and what amazing sound bites and insight she gave with her answers. I’ll remember her 200th career victory at Wofford and how she underplayed it to the point that all she would talk about was her team’s performance and how proud of them she was. And how could I ever forget her cheering from the sidelines, especially when she screamed to the fans that traveled the half hour to UNCG to get loud right before Ali Ford hit her buzzer beater to win the game.

I’ll remember her fighting back tears when discussing how proud she was of her team after they were eliminated in the SoCon Tournament and truly seeing how much these girls meant to her.

Karen Barefoot is one heck of a coach and Old Dominion is getting a tremendous basketball mind to lead their program in the right direction. While she has left Elon, her spirit and goals will remain with this team. Her players have been infected by Barefoot’s winning attitude and drive for success. The lesions she taught this squad will remain with them long after their Elon careers are over, hopefully with some hardware to show for their work.

I cannot be happier for Coach and this opportunity she has been presented with, but I am thankful of what she did to change the culture here at Elon University. I also know that throughout this entire season and for years to come, she will always keep this school in her thoughts.

Because while the search has begun for the new figure to lead the Phoenix on the sidelines, Coach Barefoot presence will be felt on Elon Women’s Basketball until the ideals of winning, teamwork, and character are no longer believed to be important. After all, this team still goes to that same one heartbeat.

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