Nov. 20, 2003
ATLANTA – Fallon Stokes hopes to one day star in a courtroom, but the aspiring lawyer has one more case to prove on the basketball court, as the senior aims to lead the Lady Jackets basketball program to its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
The all-ACC forward is one of four returning starters for first-year head coach MaChelle Joseph. Eight other letterwinners are also back from last year’s squad, which recorded the best season in school history.
That abundance of experience has created an air confidence heading into the 2003-04 campaign, which tips off Friday night against Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton. A trip to the Paradise Jam tournament in St. Thomas begins on Thanksgiving Day.
“I have a different feeling [than last year],” Stokes said. “I think the sky is the limit for this team. Last year, we had a talented group, but we were young. We only had one person that had been to the NCAA Tournament (Megan Isom at Tennessee Tech). Now we’re an experienced team, and we’re only bringing two freshmen in. That gives us a lot of leadership.”
Stokes and four fellow seniors will provide that leadership. The Atlanta native set a stellar example with her play last season, averaging 15.7 points and 6.5 rebounds last season. She turned it up a notch down the stretch, keying a late season surge that secured the postseason bid.
“Fallon was one of our go-to players last year,” stated Joseph. “Fallon is the second leading returning scorer in the ACC this year. I look for her to go from being a great player to being an elite player. I expect her to be one of the top three scorers and rebounders in the ACC.”
The team’s biggest challenge is replacing their lone departing starter, center Sonja Mallory. The all-ACC center led the team in points and rebounds while serving as the team’s emotional leader.
“You don’t replace a player like Sonja Mallory,” Joseph said. “You just hope to take three or four players and make up for 10 rebounds and 17 points a game. Fallon is definitely one of the top three players in the ACC, so she has that ability.”
“Sonja really carried a lot of that burden last year being the only senior on the floor,” added Stokes, who will earn her degree in public policy in May. “She had a hard time, because we had never been to the tournament. This year we have a lot more experience, and we can spread it around.”
In addition to filling the void left by Mallory, the Lady Jackets are also adjusting to the departure of longtime head coach Angus Berenato, who left after 15 season to take over Pittsburgh’s program.
The transition to Joseph, who came to Tech in 2001 as an assistant, has been relatively smooth thanks to her familiarity with the program and players.
“If we had someone completely new, we’d still be learning a different system and working out kinks,” explained Stokes. “With Coach Jo, we know what to expect. We’re just tweaking things that we’ve been doing. We’ve adjusted to the system much faster than the previous years, and it’s been a very easy adjustment. I feel good about what we can accomplish.”
The media covering the ACC agreed, picking the team to finish fourth in the competitive conference and naming Stokes to the preseason all-ACC team. Those types of accolades have been rare in the program’s 29-year history, but last season’s 20-11 record has changed a lot of minds.
Stokes is also pegged as an all-America candidate, but she downplayed the importance of individual citations. “I can’t get any of those accolades unless my team performs well,” she said. “Those things are nice, but I rather win and go farther than we did last year.”
She alludes to the fact that the fairy tale ended abruptly for the Lady Jackets in the NCAA Tournament last March, as Virginia Tech scored with just one second remaining for a 61-59 victory.
“We don’t want to be one and done,” Stokes said. “That’s not a good feeling. You work so hard during the season to make it into the tournament, and you don’t want to show up for just one game. It’s great to be there, so you want it to last and enjoy it.”