Eighteen years ago, one of the most sought autographs in the north country was the signature of Malones Missy West, who spent several minutes after varsity games signing hats and shirts and programs for kids.
West was then known as the best girls basketball player in the state, winning Miss New York Basketball in 1996.
West is now known at Hartwick College as one of the best womens basketball coaches at the NCAA Division III level.
Wests Hawks team is 21-4 heading into the Empire 8 semifinals in Ithaca this weekend. She has produced a 65-18 overall record in the past three years at a school that had just one winning season in the six year before her arrival.
We have the best team that Ive ever coached and the best chemistry Ive ever had, West said. Its close to home and athletics is important. I wouldnt be here if I didnt have that.
West played at Duke University after high school, but knee problems caused difficulty for her later in her college career. She spent three years after college playing professional basketball in Germany and then returned to the north country to start a coaching career as an assistant at SUNY Canton.
In both stops, West had to pull a program out of a mess and turn it into a winner.
SUNY Canton went 0-45 the two seasons before Bruce Tallon was named head coach, and he brought in West as an assistant in 2004-05.
The Kangaroos went 3-20 that first season, but one year later, they were 18-10 and then 23-5 the following season. Wests last year at SUNY Canton, 2007-08, she was named co-head coach and the team went 12-9.
Canton taught me a lot, West said. I was very fortunate to work with coach Tallon, who kind of let me step in and experience everything. He kind of let me take control and make mistakes and learn from them. He also helped me grow and helped me learn how to build a program. When I walked into Canton we were literally holding up signs trying to get kids to sign up and play. I walked into nothing. Going through that brought me back to a lot of the fundamentals about the game.
(Tallon) let me teach. He let me fall and he helped me back up, all those little things I needed to learn as a coach.
West arrived on Hartwicks campus for the 2008-09 season, inheriting a team that had gone 27-46 the previous three seasons. The Hawks hadnt had a winning record since going 15-12 in 2003-04.
It was a slow start for West, who had a 29-44 record in her first three years at Hartwick.
She has since had the Hawks among the elite programs in the Empire 8 conference. In 2011-12, they had a breakout 22-6 season, and West led them to their first NCAA Division III Tournament since 1999.
The big thing is recruiting, West said. You could be the best coach, but if you dont have talented players you arent going to go far.
With West recruiting is about more than just talent. She had a passion for the game and a drive that caused her to be one of the hardest-working players in the area as a high school athlete.
Some say good athletes dont always make good coaches because they get frustrated when their own players wont work as hard. West defies that by finding players who think the way she does, and if they dont, they dont last with the program.
Its about getting the right kids that you know can believe in your system and trust you as a coach, West said. Im an extremely intense coach and I say it like it is. Ive had kids leave because they cant handle it. You have to truly bust your butt recruiting and you need to get those right players that you know are going to work hard for you. If you have selfish players you wont go far.
One thing that makes West unique is she knows what its like to be the big star on a team, but because of her injury, she also knows what its like to be the frustrated player on the bench wondering when she will get a chance to play. That experience led to issues with her Duke coach, Gail Goestenkors, at the time, but now she understands.
Ive been on the other side where all the awards were coming my way and I was the superstar, and I went from that to nothing, West said. I think its helped with my communication and helped me be more compassionate with those players. I really try to be as honest as I possibly can. Im a team coach, Im not an individual coach. Where you fall short is where players wont accept their roles and the team is not important.
Goestenkors, now an assistant coach with the WNBAs Los Angeles Sparks, still keeps in touch with West and recently told her in a letter that she was one of the most passionate players she ever coached.
One of the best lessons that ever happened to me was when I was injured, West said. I sat out for almost two years. Thankfully, I had (Goestenkors), who let me sit right beside her, let me sit in and watched film. She talked through games with me. Ill never forget that.
When I left Duke our relationship wasnt the best, you could say, and there were a lot of misunderstandings. Now me, being a coach, I understand. I know anything I needed, coach would be there for me.
SU-Duke Redux popular
The Syracuse-Duke game on Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium scored big ratings for ESPN.
The game was watched by 4.2 million people, which qualifies it as the highest-rated sports event of the week on cable television.
TNT was second in the ratings with 3.8 million viewers for an NBA game between Oklahoma City and Miami on Thursday.
Syracuse-Duke has been big business for ESPN this season. The first SU-Duke game at the Carrier Dome on Feb. 1 drew the fourth-largest audience for a college basketball game for ESPN since 2002.
Sportswriter Cap Carey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org