When Ross James landed the head coaching job for the Mary Baldwin women’s basketball team in 2017, he knew he would have to start from scratch. The Fighting Squirrels had won a total of two games over the five previous seasons, and they hadn’t enjoyed a double-digit win season since 2010.
What a difference two years makes.
After being picked in a 2018–19 pre-season poll to finish eighth out of the nine teams in their division, the Fighting Squirrels proceeded to stun their opponents by posting a 17–9 overall record and 10–8 in conference play, finishing in fourth place in the USA South East Division. The 17 wins are tied for the second-most in school history and the most since the 2003–04 season, while the 10 conference wins were the most since Mary Baldwin joined the USA South in 2010.
The Fighting Squirrels’ season culminated on February 13, when Mary Baldwin hosted a USA South Women’s Basketball Tournament game for the first time in school history. Backed by an energetic capacity crowd in the Physical Activities Center, the Fighting Squirrels went on to defeat the N.C. Wesleyan Battling Bishops in a thrilling 114–108 overtime win. Their Cinderella season would come to an end three days later during the quarterfinal round against No. 2 Piedmont College.
As evidence of a successful season, Mary Baldwin was honored with two of the USA South’s top three conference awards for women’s basketball.
Freshman standout Leah Calhoun became the first Fighting Squirrel to earn an individual year-end USA South women’s basketball award when she was named Rookie of the Year after leading all conference rookies with 16.7 points, 6.1 defensive rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game. Calhoun also finished third in defensive rebounding, third in scoring, fourth in steals, and tenth in total rebounding. In addition to her award, Calhoun was also named to the First Team East Division, becoming just the fifth Mary Baldwin women’s basketball student-athlete to collect the honor. During the course of the season, she was also named USA South Player of the Week once and USA South Rookie of the Week twice.
Head Coach Ross James was named USA South Coach of the Year in only his second season, becoming the first Mary Baldwin coach in any sport to be given that honor. James was quick to acknowledge that his award is due to the hard work of everyone involved with Mary Baldwin women’s basketball.
“It is an honor to be named USA South Coach of the Year by my fellow coaching peers,” James said. “This award is shared by the players, assistant coaches, and support staff. Their commitment, dedication, and sacrifices made this possible.”
The Fighting Squirrels also garnered several seasonal achievements for freshman Brooke Anders, who was named to the Second Team East Division, and senior Nicole Blackburn, who garnered the All-Sportsmanship Award.
Among a roster that included five sophomores and nine freshmen, the Fighting Squirrels sported three local talents. Sophomore Kemper Snyder is a graduate of Lee High School in Staunton, while freshman Hannah Varner and Rookie of the Year Calhoun attended nearby Buffalo Gap High School.
With the renewed energy among students and student-athletes alike and a strong youth movement, MBU women’s basketball has built a firm foundation to catapult the Fighting Squirrels into next season and beyond.