DURHAM, N.C. -- Everything was sailing along just fine for Gail Goestenkors and her Duke women's basketball program. Or so the coach thought.
The Blue Devils had gone to seven straight NCAA tournaments and were once again ranked in early December before heading to Virginia for their Atlantic Coast Conference opener.
Goestenkors then got shocked into reality as two sophomores, each averaging 14 minutes a game, quit the team. That left the Blue Devils with just eight players, the smallest roster in the ACC.
"One of them left the day before our Virginia trip and the other one left as we were getting on the bus for the Virginia trip," Goestenkors said of the departures of Rometra Craig and Crystal White. "I was in a state of shock.
"I was very disheartened and I questioned myself because you think you have this close-knit family and then all of the sudden two people leave. You feel like you should have seen it coming and you should have been able to do something to keep it from happening."
Once in Charlottesville, Va., Duke had a team meeting.
"The kids are the ones that pulled me out of it as far as telling me it was best that they left and that I was doing a good job and not to change anything and that this would make us more determined," Goestenkors said.
Would it ever.
The Blue Devils beat the Cavaliers 107-73 to start a remarkable 19-0 run through the ACC regular season and postseason tournament to earn Goestenkors her fourth Associated Press coach of the year award in the league.
Goestenkors, with a 10-year record of 233-81, received 34 of a possible 46 votes cast by members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Writers Association.
Virginia's Debbie Ryan was second with six votes, while Agnus Berenato of Georgia Tech got five and Clemson's Jim Davis one.
Only Ryan, with seven, has won the AP award more times than Coach G.
In fact, it was Ryan who pulled her colleague aside when the two hit the court Dec. 6 to offer some encouragement after the defections.
"I told her they were going to be fine," Ryan said. "A lot of times when someone leaves your team and they are not really contributing in a positive way it can help your team more than hurt it. I'm not so sure she believed me at that moment, but I think she probably believes me now."
Goestenkors said her moment with Ryan was something special.
"I will never forget that as long as I live," Goestenkors said. "One of the many reasons I love coaching is the camaraderie. She said, 'Don't let this get you down, don't let this change your goals or your dreams.'
"It meant so much coming from her because she been there, she has been around the block and seen so much throughout her career. Our kids then came out and played one of the best games we've played all year. It was a statement game for our team."
Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, Goestenkors and the team returned to campus and got to work, tweaking a successful system that now had little depth or room for foul trouble.
"I think I've done my best job coaching because I have had to make adjustments," Goestenkors said. "Many of the adjustments have come in practice, trying to design very competitive drills when you only have eight players. But also in utilizing our versatility and knowing we had to be the smartest team on the floor because we couldn't afford the errors."
Duke (27-3) won its 16 ACC games by an average of 21.9 points and knocked off North Carolina in the ACC championship game Monday to head into the NCAAs ranked third in the nation.
And for Goestenkors, this year may have been a blessing in disguise, a learning experience that could be a major turning point in her career after a decade in the business.
"My goal now is to have a smaller team," she said. "I'm not going back up to 13, 14 or 15 players if I can help it. I want my players to be happy, to learn and to grow and feel they've had a great experience here.
"Things are changing now. The student-athletes aren't as willing to work and wait as they were five or 10 years ago. It's a fast-food society. What's in it for me today? We all need to be able to adjust."
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