Senior forward Jenn Hailey made an impression on Cara Consuegra before the new Charlotte 49ers women’s basketball coach had ever seen her play.
Consuegra had just been hired to replace coach Karen Aston in spring 2011 when she first met the 6-foot, 3-inch Hailey.
“I walked into my press conference,” said Consuegra, “and she walked up to me, and I thought, ‘This is going to be awesome.’ She’s such a physical presence on and off the court.”
The rest of the Atlantic 10 Conference had gotten hints of just how awesome Hailey could be during her freshman and sophomore campaigns. But last year, the Marshville native had a breakout year in Consuegra’s first season, earning a spot on the A-10’s all-conference second team and the A-10 all-defensive team.
This season, the league’s coaches think Hailey might do even better. They voted her to the preseason all-conference first team and chose her to return to the all-defensive team.
The same panel predicted the 49ers will finish third in the conference, which would be an improvement on their sixth-place regular-season finish in 2011-12.
Hailey will probably have a say in how that turns out. A true post player, on offense she works most effectively on the low blocks. But her specialty is defense and rebounding. She led the conference last year in boards (9.3 per game) and blocked shots (2.1 per game).
Just as she did with a lot of the returning players last year, Consuegra was able to evaluate Hailey only from what she saw on tape of the previous year’s games. Once the season started, and Consuegra developed a better understanding of Hailey’s game, the coach tried to shape game plans more around her abilities.
“Defensively, she was fantastic for us with her ability to block and alter shots,” said Consuegra. “She made it difficult for teams to come into the paint and score against us. Her length gives her such great ability to get to the ball and rebound. She’s hungry to rebound.
“Jenn is really good on the block. When she gets the ball deep in the paint, there’s not much teams can do. She is going to score. Everyone tries to push her off the block, because they know if she catches it there, they’re in trouble.”
Hailey led the 49ers in rebounding in 17 games last year and was the top scorer in 12. She recorded double figures in both points and rebounds in 12 different games, exhibiting one of her greatest strengths: consistency.
Her game wasn’t always so balanced. An all-state player at Forest Hills High, Hailey needed a season to adjust to the collegiate game and to becoming a college student.
She became a starter during her sophomore year, but Aston left at the end of the season. When Consuegra was hired, Hailey had to make more adjustments, this time to the personality of a new coach.
“My first meeting with Coach Cara,” said Hailey, “I had to learn what she wanted. She told us what she expected out of us. … She expected a lot out of me. She wanted me to own the boards, basically.”
There are areas of her game that she has to work on, Hailey said, such as her footwork around the basket and boxing out opponents during rebounds. Consuegra agreed that Hailey is the face of the 49ers’ program, among fans and her teammates, and therefore must be more vocal as a leader.
Last season, Charlotte finished with a 16-14 record and earned its 11th consecutive postseason tournament bid by playing in the WNIT. This season, Charlotte returns all five starters and nine letterwinners, and Hailey thinks the 49ers are strong enough to earn their first trip to the NCAA tournament since the 2008-09 season.
That’s saying a lot.
Charlotte will open its regular season at home at Halton Arena against N.C. Central at 6 p.m. Nov. 10.