Lady Privateers ready to get back to winning

NEW ORLEANS — Since she can remember, Keri Thomas has “lived, ate and slept basketball.”

But towards the end of last season, her first at the University of New Orleans, she “felt my passion running out of me.”

Going 0-26 will do that the most dedicated gym rat.

But Thomas came back for her senior year which begins Friday with the opener against Northwestern State at Lakefront Arena. And with the school’s decision to reverse course and return to Division I, Thomas’ old passion has returned.

“I’m excited,” said Thomas, a 5-foot-5 guard from Alexandria Peabody by way of Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College. “We’ve got a new group of players and we’re ready to get some wins under our belt.”

Ah, such is the enthusiasm of youth.

The truth is, second-year Lady Privateers coach Keeshawn Carter concedes, is that with the late decision to commit to Division I, she had to go out and scrounge up what she could to put a representative team on the court against a schedule that includes 25 D-I foes, 20 more than a year ago.

Only three players — Thomas, and fellow seniors Mirjam Sipos and Meche’le Thomas return. Four junior college transfers and three high school signees hailing from nearby as Metairie and as far away as Denmark make up the rest of the roster.

“I don’t want to say our expectations are low, but because these girls are going to go out and give their all every night.

“And sometimes I feel like we’re going to come out on the winning side. But it may take two or three years for people to take us seriously again.”

But fallow seasons are nothing new of late at UNO.

The Lady Privateers haven’t had a winning season since 2002. Since Hurricane Katrina closed the campus for a semester in 2005, they’ve gone 54-145, including a 3-45 mark over the last two seasons.

UNO hasn’t beaten a Division I team since knocking off Denver in the semifinals of the 2010 Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The Lady Privateers will compete as a Division I independent this year before joining the Southland Conference for the 2013-14 season.

Carter, who has been at the school since 1997, first as a player then as an assistant and now as head coach, admits it’s been tough, especially for someone who says of herself, “Cut me and I bleed blue and silver.”

“It was an absolute nightmare,” Carter said of last season. “But I believe with all my heart that those kids gave it everything they had.

“We came close a couple of times, but we just didn’t finish. But now it’s time for us not just to turn the page, but to rip that page out.”

Carter said her main goal last year was to focus on her team and not the turmoil in the school’s athletic department, including the firing of Amy Champion, Carter’s boss first as head coach of the Lady Privateers and then athletic director.

“I never cheated the girls,” she said. “I just concentrated on the task at hand because we can only control the things we can control.

“I didn’t know who was going to be in charge or if they were going to bring me back. But all I could do was coach the team the best I could.”

And, Carter points out, with only three players returning, most of the team did not have to experience the trauma of last season.

Those three returnees will be starting tonight along with junior college transfers Amber Clay and Melissa Jenkins.

“We’re looking on this as our revenge year,” Keri Thomas said. “There’s a lot of hunger to win.

“We’ll play anybody anywhere. I still love this game and I know my hard work is going to pay off.”