The 2016-17 Campbell women's basketball season was one for the record books. In October, the Big South Conference coaches picked the Camels to finish eighth in the league according to the annual coaches poll. CU was coming off a 13-18 campaign with just a 7-13 mark in Big South play.
Campbell defied expectations this past season and finished with a 21-10 overall record, an eight-win turnaround to record the program's eighth 20-win season. It was the first in four years and just the second in the past 16 seasons. Although, these Camels reached the 20-win mark faster than any other team in program history.
As for the Big South, 13 of those victories came in conference play and CU's 13-5 record earned a runner-up finish in the league. It was the program's highest finish in a conference since the 2000-01 season, and of course six spots higher than the projection in the Big South preseason poll.
Despite a quarterfinal upset by eventual champions UNC Asheville in the conference tournament, the Camels received an opportunity for their first postseason appearance since 2000 when they accepted a bid to their first Women's Basketball Invitational. It marked the first time postseason women's basketball was played in Buies Creek and inside Gore Arena.
Perhaps the highlight of the season was claiming the NCAA statistic championship for scoring defense between all Division I programs for the 2016-17 season. Campbell held its opponents to a national-low 49.6 point per game. CU was the only program to finish below the 50-point threshold after allowing fewer than 40 points in 10 different games.
Leading the charge was first-year head coach Ronny Fisher. We recently sat down with the 2016-17 Big South Coach of the Year to get his thoughts on the campaign and re-visit some topics discussed during a preseason interview many months ago.
Question: When we put out the season outlook back in early November, we learned about the team's theme of "Building Something Special". Tell us about some of the things that were built this past season.
Fisher: "I feel that the cornerstones of our program of being a great team, giving great effort and having a great attitude are still there. We really did those three things this season. To achieve those goals you have to have leadership, and we saw a player like (Brianna) Cribb step up and become a leader. The year before she was a non-factor, so that was awesome to see. We had great leadership even though we only had two seniors, and I thought looking back at the season that was the key. I feel that we did lay the foundation towards something special and we have to build on it now. It's not easy. This year was awesome, but to take the next step forward will be the real task."
Question: In an offense that only returned 25 points per game from the season before, how was this team able to step up and create enough offense to be so successful?
Fisher: "I feel that we played to our strengths, and Summer (Price) really had a breakout season. She was a good offensive player coming in, but this year she increased her scoring and assists while becoming a better defender. Then, MaKala Rouse came in and tripled her scoring from the year before. Our unsung hero, Caroline Bowns, led the league in three pointers. That's amazing from a player that averaged two points last season. To top it all off, there was Hannah Long. Hannah went from a non-factor and to averaging six points per game. We got contributions from a lot of different areas, but seeing those players step up and take on tougher rolls was great. That's why we were successful."
Question: When you return a small amount of scoring you would expect a lot of inexperience heading into a season. This team was no different. How did these players overcome that inexperience and find success?
Fisher: "I think it goes back to not concentrating on wins and losses, but focusing on the process. We really stressed in practice how hard you have to play and we held them accountable. It carried right over for us, they stepped up and made plays. Price stepped up and had seven 20-point games, but she was in better shape this season. She was tougher. We still showed inexperience down the stretch however. We played poorly in the tournament, but three of the last four losses we had a chance to win. I think that some of that inexperience did show up, but we can get much better. If we can get to that same point next season I hope we can win games like we lost down the stretch."
Question: What are some of your biggest takeaways from your first season here at Campbell?
Fisher: "Winning 21 games was pretty neat because it was something that hasn't been done so often. It was great for this program. The scoring defense as well. I've always wanted to be the best in the country at something and never have been before. So to do that was really special. The Puerto Rico trip was awesome too. That was a highlight, not just winning the games, but seeing a different side of everybody and getting to know everybody better. You don't have an opportunity to take many trips like that. And just to see a player like Cribb have the season she had with no expectation whatsoever coming in. That was just really cool."
Question: What's next for this program? What can fans expect from the 2017-18 Camels?
Fisher: "I think we just need to build on what we did this past year. It's easy to get complacent after a good season and it starts with our coaching staff and our leadership. We've got to wipe that away and take another step in our program. We can't just be satisfied because it's easy to do. It's easy to get in that mindset, and a year ago we didn't know if we were even going to win a game. We have to re-gain that mentality. I feel that if we do that, stay healthy and our freshmen come in and contribute then we should have a chance to be in the mix again next year."