35 Years Later, Memories Still Fresh for Women’s College Hoops Legend

Former women’s college basketball star Anne Gregory-O’Connell remembers with crystal clear clarity what it was like to be a female college athlete in the late-1970s.

Anne Gregory-O'Connell. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

Anne Gregory-O’Connell. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

“We actually got the men’s hand-me-down warm-ups and we thought we were totally cool because of it,” Gregory-O’Connell recalled. “My coach (Kathy Mosolino) really had to fight to even get us gym time to practice. That was just the way it was.”

The 1980 graduate of Fordham University was women’s college basketball’s all-time leading rebounder from her senior year in 1980 until 2009, when Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris surpassed her career total of 1,999.

Gregory-O’Connell posted remarkable career numbers along with her 1,999 rebounds (2,548 points, 200 blocks, .568 field goal percentage). The 6-foot-1 forward’s electrifying play not only helped her team’s cause on the court, but also forced people to pay attention to women’s college basketball during a time when women’s sports were anything but popular.

When the former hoops star thinks back to her time in the maroon and white, however, she does not dwell on the gender inequities she and her teammates endured, but rather the pride that comes from having laid the groundwork for what now exists for female athletes at Fordham.

“Even though we had to fight for everything we got, I’m proud of having been a part of that pioneer era for women’s sports,” Gregory-O’Connell, a member of Fordham’s second-ever women’s recruiting class to get athletic scholarships, said. “And I’m especially proud to see Fordham Women’s Basketball under Stephanie Gaitley now competing regularly on a national level and getting recognized for their success.”

After having advanced to the last two Atlantic 10 Conference championship games and winning the title last season, Fordham Women’s Basketball has risen out of obscurity and into the national conversation. The Rams have experienced back-to-back 25-win seasons under head coach Stephanie Gaitley, and are poised to contend for another championship this year. The winning tradition that Gaitley’s squad has reestablished in the Bronx reminds Gregory-O’Connell of the last time Fordham women’s hoops was an annual contender: her own playing days.

Gregory-O’Connell’s playing career at Fordham exhibited the most successful four-year run in program history, with the team recording 91 total wins from 1976-80, and winning the 1978 and 1979 Eastern Regional Championships. While becoming Fordham’s all-time leading rebounder, scorer, and blocker during this time, Gregory-O’Connell was not alone in her record-setting success. Her teammate, Mary Hayes, set the assists record, while Kathy Mosolino became Fordham’s winningest women’s basketball coach in school history. All of these records still stand today.

While each season that Gregory-O’Connell donned the Block F was memorable, the board-crashing legend considers her junior season, which saw her team advance to the equivalent of today’s Elite 8, as her favorite.

“We hosted the Regional Tournament at Fordham that year and we beat Long Beach State, who we were not supposed to beat at all,” stated Gregory-O’Connell, now a guidance counselor at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, New York. “Then we got to play against Tennessee and Pat Summit and that was just a huge thrill. We gave them a game.”

Gregory-O'Connell after her No. 55 was retired in 2009. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

Gregory-O’Connell after her No. 55 was retired in 2009. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

The Fordham Rams finished their magical 1978-79 season with a 27-7 record and the program’s only-ever Top 25 ranking, with a spot at #19. The ’78-’79 squad still holds six team records to this day, including the program’s highest single-season win total. These indelible marks prove that Gregory-O’Connell and her teammates are still the pride of the Rose Hill Gymnasium, even after nearly four decades.

“We had a really good team, a tremendous coach, excellent chemistry, and a really, really good time,” Gregory-O’Connell recollected.

Gregory-O’Connell became the first female athlete inducted into the Fordham Athletics Hall of Fame in 1986. Her No. 55 jersey is also one of just two permanently on display in the Rose Hill Gymnasium, as it was retired in 2009 alongside Fordham Basketball great Ed Conlin.

While the evidence of Gregory-O’Connell’s tremendous college basketball career now rests primarily in the record books and the rafters of Fordham’s primordial gym, the biggest proof of her supreme experiences on the hardwood is evident in her life.

“The discipline, hard work, and confidence I gained at Fordham followed me after graduation,” Gregory-O’Connell said. “And the friendships I made at that period in my life have been unbelievable and long-lasting since college. We all still get together and reminisce about the old times. It was an experience I truly wouldn’t trade for anything.”

“Hidden Gems” on the Hardwood Key Fordham’s Recent Success

Stephanie Gaitley. (Courtesy of Geoff Burke)

Stephanie Gaitley. (Courtesy of Geoff Burke)

Like a pirate searching the sea for hidden treasure, Fordham Women’s Basketball head coach Stephanie Gaitley looks high and low to find talented recruits. Unlike a pirate, however, Fordham’s fourth year coach doesn’t find her treasure in the sea, but rather on hardwood courts overseas.

“It’s an untapped market,” Gaitley, the winningest active coach in the Atlantic 10 Conference, said. “We hit heads with every school in the conference for certain kids when we go out recruiting, but when we go overseas, some coaches know nothing about those kids, so they are like hidden gems that you might steal.”

Last season, Gaitley’s gems certainly helped her discover the treasure that she so earnestly sought after: Fordham’s first Atlantic 10 championship and diamond-studded championship rings, to boot.

Gaitley’s championship squad involved three international players, including 2014 graduate and First Team All-Conference selection Erin Rooney (17.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg & 5.2 apg) from Christchurch, New Zealand.

“Erin, who was the best young player in New Zealand, took us to a title, but not a lot of coaches even knew about her,” Gaitley said. “She looked at some west coast schools, but the difference for us was that we went over there and took the time to meet her family.”

With just 18 total international players in the 13-team Atlantic 10 Conference this season – four of which attend Fordham – Gaitley has set a precedent for the rest of the conference to follow by attracting and developing overseas talent.

Gaitley and her coaching mates believe their ability to cultivate bonds with international recruits and their families ultimately aids in their eventual arrivals, and subsequent successes, at Rose Hill.

“For most of the international kids, it’s about relationships,” the 1982 Villanova graduate said. “They want to know that people will care about them, and that if they come over here, they are going to be in good hands.”

While Gaitley and her staff take the time to establish relationships with international recruits during the summer, they have another invaluable element helping their efforts during the recruiting process: New York City.

“I think for the international player, New York is a huge market,” Gaitley stated. “The number one American city they know is New York. So, not only do you have a great city, but you have a beautiful school, with a great academic reputation, and a great basketball conference. And now that we’ve won, we’ve kind of put the whole package together.”

Asnate Fomina (21). (Courtesy of Romualds Vambuts)

Asnate Fomina (21). (Courtesy of Romualds Vambuts)

This package that Gaitley speaks of is what lured Latvian freshman guard Asnate Fomina to Fordham.

“The most important thing was the education,” Fomina said. “Fordham is a good school and the basketball team was conference champions last year, and I liked coach and my teammates, so it was a good decision for me.”

Fomina, a member of the 2013 Latvian National Team at the European Championship, chose the American college experience because it allowed her to pursue both an athletic and academic focus.

“It’s different from Europe to study here because you can be an athlete and a student,” the graduate of Riga Secondary School No. 49 said. “The schools in my country separate athletes and students, so I chose America to be able to do both things.”

Similarly, Slovenian sophomore Alina Gjerkes, a contributing member of Gaitley’s championship squad last season as a freshman (2.5 ppg), saw Fordham as an opportunity to pursue her passions both on the court and in the classroom.

“What attracted me to Fordham was the possibly that I would be able to merge basketball and great academics,” the guard said. “If I stayed back home and wanted to play at a high level, I wouldn’t be able to go to the type of academic school I would want to go to.”

For both Fomina and Gjerkes, the biggest adjustment to life at Fordham wasn’t the language barrier or feeling of homesickness, but rather, the style of play on the basketball court.

“Here, there is more aggressive basketball,” Fomina asserted. “Individually, girls are more aggressive and physically stronger.”

“The American game is way more structured than back home, where we have less plays and the details are not as important,” Gjerkes said. “Everything is way more competitive here because everyone is on scholarship and fighting for positions, so practices are way more intense than what we have back home.”

For Gjerkes, however, a year of college basketball in America has paid dividends athletically, by both increasing her level of play and basketball maturity.

Alina Gjerkes (3). (Courtesy of Richmond.com)

Alina Gjerkes (3). (Courtesy of Richmond.com)

“I think I’ve learned to take instructions better and become a more complete player,” Gjerkes claimed. “I’ve also learned that when you think you can’t go any further, you have to just keep going. I didn’t know that concept before Fordham.”

Gjerkes learned these invaluable lessons in maturity and hard work from Fordham’s aforementioned former-star Erin Rooney.

“Last year in the summer, Erin would say, ‘I know your legs hurt, but they’re not going to fall off and you’re not going to die,’” Gjerkes said. “It made me better.”

Although Gaitley’s international players often encounter a learning curve when they first arrive at Fordham due to the physicality of the American game, they also present more-inclusive skillsets than first-year American college players usually possess.

“The style of play is more physical over here, but I think skill-wise, they come in more versatile because they get taught everything at a young age,” Gaitley said. “Sometimes over here, if you’re big, you stay in the post, if you’re little, you’re a guard. There, they teach them a little of every skill.”

While Gaitley’s quest for international treasure is somewhat uncommon and perhaps even unconventional by women’s college basketball standards today, it has proven to be as edifying for Fordham’s program on the court as it is off of it.

“Just having that diversity on the team and that cultural experience I think broadens the horizons of everyone,” Gaitley said. “It brings a completely different element to our program.”

For Fordham Women’s Basketball, the international treasure chest has proven to house the riches that money can’t buy. And, with Gaitley continuing to steer Fordham’s recruiting ship in the direction of undiscovered players and Atlantic 10 championships, more hidden gems are surely on their way to the Bronx.