As they stepped down from the podium, they embraced.

Maybe the hug, the smile, the display of public emotion was uncharacteristic. Maybe it seemed peculiar that head coach Joe Frager and senior forward Stephanie Geehan, as stoic and disciplined as their brand of basketball, would relax, even for a moment, and enjoy the victory.

But maybe it wasn’t a moment of relaxation as much as a realization, a mutual reflection of where the team is headed – an impending Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Championship Game against top-seeded Marist tomorrow afternoon in Albany– and where it has been – a batter, beaten, and stricken team looking for answers, for results, for anything.

Not long ago, the Stags gathered in the depths of the Yanitelli Center, in the shadow of a 55-41 loss to St. Peter’s on Feb. 5, and made a pledge: their season, one marked by a 4-9 conference record and a steady stream of bad losses and even worse luck, was over.

“We really got it handed to us at St. Peter’s,” Frager recalled. “We really got beaten on the boards. I think after that we said we have to divide the season, and this was going to be a brand new season for it.”

Following the game, Frager and his staff made a few subtle adjustments to the lineup. The team moved Desiree Pina, traditionally a shooting guard, to point guard. The Stags also decided to utilize Geehan different offensively by playing her at the “three,” small forward position on the floor.

Frager also cited a renewed dedication to defensive execution and attention to detail, two hallmarks of the Stags during the team’s nine-game winning streak.

Still, the fundamental difference that turned a locker room promise into a defining moment and an inconsistent team into one that clinched the program’s first trip to the MAAC Championship Game since 2001, is far more complex  than X’s and O’s.

“You just have to give credit to the women for never losing heart. They had faith in each other, keeping faith in our coaching staff, and just moving forward.”

“I give (Fairfield) a lot of credit,” Iona head coach Anthony Bozzella said. “Coach Frager and this staff had this team at 4-7 in the league at one point, and now they’ve won nine in a row. A lot of team’s would’ve packed it in, and him and his staff gathered the troops together, they made a change or two in the lineup, and those kids responded.”

“I give them a lot of credit,” he added.

Adversity, it seems, built character. And anyone that’s followed this team knows that character is the reason why Fairfield’s season didn’t die in Jersey City, and now finds itself as the lone antagonist to Marist’s dynasty and just 40 minutes away from a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s not easy to keep young ladies, 18- to 22-year olds, when you’re going bad,” Bozzella said. “It’s easy when you’re on top. Marist has been on top for a long time, and I’m not saying that’s easy. It’s a lot harder when you’re 10-12, you’re struggling, you have six kids and you have your assistant coaches running around in practice like they had to.”

“I think Coach (Frager) said it best in the locker room,” Geehan said. “A couple of weeks ago no one expected us to be in this position. We really came together as a team.”

“We’re happy, but not too happy just yet,” she added.

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