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Bosco’s Corner: It’s time for SJU women to rise again

When Darcel Estep was introduced as head coach of the St. John’s women’s basketball team, tears welled up in her eyes as she emotionally thanked the school for giving her the opportunity she had so longed for.

And in the immortal words of one S.E. Hinton, “that was then and this is now.”

Estep was fired from her former post last week, bringing an end to yet another disappointing era — or is that error — in the history of the St. John’s women’s basketball program, a program that has pretty much become the joke of the Big East.

While certain failures can be excused, there can be no excuse, not a one, as to why the program during Estep’s reign and of those who came before her has failed to successfully recruit New York City — specifically Queens — basketball players.

Over the past few years the inadequate recruiting policies of the SJU women’s team have become more glaring than ever before. Most notably was that the team never made a run at the only All-American playing ball in the borough a year ago, Christ the King alum Clare Droesch, who landed, of all places, at Big East rival Boston College.

She didn’t go to Connecticut, Tennessee, Notre Dame or Rutgers. She went to Boston College, a team hardly considered a national powerhouse. St. John’s never even showed serious interest.

But Droesch is just the tip of the iceberg. Chamique Holdsclaw and Sue Bird, two other former Christ the King standouts who went on to Division I fame, were also never pursued by St. John’s, something I find absolutely unbelievable.

And while this year offers no such can’t miss prospect in Queens there are a few solid ballplayers. Dawn Gorynski at St. Francis Prep, Cigi McCollin at Christ the King, Donna Lohrey at Mary Louis and a host of public school players are bound to find their way onto Division I rosters, just not at St. John’s.

In fact, the club’s lone local player will be Dana Petersen of St. Peter’s in Staten Island. She will be joined by Moriah Trowell (Ontario, Canada), Lorren Galloway (Spray Berry, Ga.) and Andrea Stojanovic (Wheeling, W.V.) as the new players on the team next year.

None of these players has been sought after by St. John’s and I can’t see why. The Red Storm failure to land quality recruits or even seriously pursue them has made the club a pale counterpart to the men’s team, which, while not ranked in the top 25, can at least compete and even beat some of the better teams in the country.

For the women’s team to come within 20 points of Connecticut would be seen as a victory. But even that may be dreaming.

With Estep’s departure, the school has basically closed the book on this season. And if the St. John’s brain trust doesn’t find a replacement soon — unless they decide to stick with interim head coach and former Estep assistant Pechone Stepps — there will be no turn around in the recruiting policy and the team may again find itself looking at another losing season in 2002-2003.

The quicker St. John’s decides on its next women’s head coach, the quicker a push can be made to secure some quality players for next season and the quicker the team can establish itself as a serious player in the Big East. Right now they are a doormat, an easy win for the majority of teams in the conference, and that is something that has to be an embarrassment to the hierarchy.

The St. John’s women’s program was at its height in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the team was coached by two people, Vicki Kresse (1974-1979) and Don Perrelli (1979-1984). The two combined for a 218-86 record in the program’s first 10 seasons.

But that is also deceiving. Women’s college basketball was not anywhere near as popular or competitive then as it is today. By 1985-86, when Joe Mullaney Jr. took over, the sport was changing dramatically and success was becoming harder and harder to come by for the SJU women’s team.

Mullaney coached until the 1995-96 season, amassing a record of 168-173. His replacement was Charlene Thomas-Swinson, who threatened, albeit briefly, to return the team to its winning ways. After two dismal seasons compiling a record of 11-43, Thomas-Swinson led the team to a 13-18 record in 1998-99 and then promptly left the Red Storm for an assistant’s position in the WNBA.

Estep followed in 1999-2000 with an 11-18 record. Last year the club went 8-20 and this year, well, it is a woeful 3-16.

The school says it will conduct a national search at season’s end for a new head coach, but I hope that national search stays local. In fact, I would prefer the school take its next coach from inside the city walls.

Vincent Cannizzaro was a name on the list to replace Thomas-Swinson, but the man who made the Christ the King program a national powerhouse ended up as an assistant at Stony Brook instead. Cannizzaro would be a good fit and certainly someone who could get some city kids to stay home.

Jerry Ingenito is another local coach who could stand some scrutiny. He had built the Queens program into a solid Division II team and would also be a nice addition to the St. John’s family.

And there are others, to be sure. But whoever it turns out to be I can only hope they restore this once proud program.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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