A year after winning 23 games and qualifying for the NCAA II South Region tournament, the Eckerd women's basketball team fell to 12-14 last year and ended the season on a five-game losing streak. Yet head coach Paul Honsinger was encouraged.
He knew his team had six new players and it would likely take some time to see results. He was hoping that it would happen sometime last season, but if he had to wait until this season, so be it.
"Last year we had a lot of new pieces and we struggled to finish off games," said Honsinger, who is in his 12th season at Eckerd. "It was hard to get them on the same page. We were competitive but we would take it to the wire and lose by a couple possessions. But in the spring we saw a different commitment."
Honsinger said the team started working out together. They played scrimmage games in the gym and lifted weights. Once this season started, the Tritons were off and running. They had a stretch between Thanksgiving and mid January where they won 11 straight games.
Prior to Wednesday's Sunshine State Conference game against Saint Leo, Eckerd was 21-4 overall and 14-2 in the conference. It's the most conference wins in a season in school history.
In the first South Region rankings last week, the Tritons were ranked No. 1. If they continue to win and keep the top ranking, they would host the South Region tournament, which starts March 10. The only other time Eckerd has hosted a South Region tournament, which includes the top eight teams in the region, it was the men in 2001.
The Tritons are an interesting mix of players. Only two players, Chelsea Johnson and Ashley Folsom, are from Florida. Four are international players, Victoria Vine (Spain), Armi Anttila (Finland), Mariam Hannoun (Israel) and Ada Yalcin (Turkey).
The rest of the roster features players from five different states, including Dallas Dickerson from Anchorage, Alaska.
The international flavor is not unusual for an Eckerd team, according to Honsinger. He said there are usually a few European players on his roster. It can, however, take the players a while to figure each other out.
"Sometimes we don't understand each other," said junior guard Kacie Juday, who is from Tipton, Ind. "We'll make a call and they'll look at us funny."
Despite some language barriers and a relatively new team, the Tritons have figured it out this season. Vine has been the most consistent player. A senior guard, she leads the team with 13.2 points. Juday isn't far behind with 12.5 points and she gets seven rebounds per game.
Senior guard/forward Anna Deegan (Kansas) is also in double figures with 10.2 points per game and junior guard Yalcin has steadied the point guard position.
"(Yalcin) really glued everything together," Honsinger said. "She fits into the puzzle nicely."
And then there is 6-foot-3 senior center Folsom. A transfer from Southern Mississippi last year, Folsom has provided stability even though she wasn't sure she was going to play this season.
"Last year I had my own issues," said Folsom, who averages more than 11 points per game. "I wasn't even sure I wanted to play basketball anymore. But it was my senior year and we had five other seniors, so I wanted to end on a high note. My whole mentality changed."
Luckily for the Tritons, Folsom stayed. She scored 32 against Tampa two weeks ago, the highest single-game total for Eckerd since 2006. Folsom and her fellow seniors will be crucial to Eckerd's stretch run, which begins next week in the conference tournament.
"I didn't want to miss this," Folsom said. "I knew we had a good chance to have a winning team and I wanted to be part of it. I felt like I had an obligation to my teammates."