Unexpected, awkward, even downright mysterious.
Such are common descriptions of the sudden departure of the University of New Mexico women’s basketball team’s five-member freshman class after the 2010-11 season.
A few weeks after the Lobos’ semifinal loss to TCU in the 2011 Mountain West tournament, the freshman players announced they were leaving UNM. The departures prompted longtime coach Don Flanagan to step down with a year remaining on his contract and left the program scrambling.
The lost class left New Mexico’s roster razor thin and an ensuing string of injuries only made things worse. Yvonne Sanchez, promoted from assistant to head coach after Flanagan’s retirement, had just six scholarship players in uniform for parts of her first season and had two midseason walk-ons playing key minutes at the 2012 MWC tournament.
To lesser degrees, the Lobos have had unbalanced, shorthanded rosters each of the past two season as well. The program that enjoyed eight NCAA Tournament appearances from 1998-2008 under Flanagan has endured three losing seasons in the last four.
“I think this is the first year I’ve felt fully recovered,” Sanchez said. “We’re not playing catch-up in recruiting and just trying to fill holes. It took longer than I thought.”
If the fallout from their departures has finally ended, questions and speculation about UNM’s lost freshmen remain. The players – Erin Boettcher, Tina Doughty, Jasmine Patterson, Brianna Taylor and Morgan Toben – chose not to talk about their decision to leave in 2011 and are not talking about it now. All five either declined or did not respond to interview requests by phone and/or through social media made by the Journal’s Ken Sickenger in late July.
Unwillingness to explain their departures has only served to magnify fan curiosity about the five former Lobos. Sanchez said she’s had occasional contact with four of the five through social media, but former teammates and others close to UNM’s program say they have heard little or nothing from the lost class.
While direct answers remain elusive, a combination of research and interviews with people who knew the players then and know them now seems to shed light on their 2011 exodus and its consequences. It starts with a look back.
Feeling the heat
By any account the 2010-11 season was a difficult one for UNM women’s basketball. A streak of nine straight 20-win campaigns had ended the previous year and season-ending injuries to guards Sara Halasz and Nikki Nelson left Flanagan and his staff mixing and matching lineups.
The team’s incoming freshmen were directly affected.
Doughty, recruited as a shooting guard, became the starting point guard by default and struggled. She was ultimately replaced at the position by senior Amanda Best and played sparingly down the stretch.
Toben and Boettcher played extensively and took occasional turns in the starting lineup. Toben had several outstanding games but sometimes had difficulty defending quicker or more physical opponents. Boettcher was solid defensively but provided little scoring.
Injuries and a medical condition prevented Taylor from making an impact, but Patterson emerged as a go-to player. The speedy, hot-shooting guard nailed down a spot in the starting lineup and went on to earn All-Mountain West honorable mention. She finished the season as UNM’s leading scorer.
“I thought Jasmine Patterson was a potential all-conference player for years to come,” said Lobos radio play-by-play announcer Joe Behrend. “Morgan Toben was a dangerous shooter and could’ve been a factor, too. You figured at least four of the five freshmen would have played a lot the next year.”
But the present was not as pleasant as the future was promising.
UNM’s patchwork lineup never entirely jelled and the team finished 13-18, Flanagan’s first losing season since his initial one at UNM in 1995-96. Despite upset wins over San Diego State and Wyoming at the MWC tournament, the Lobos missed the postseason for the first time in 14 years.
Fans became restless and, in some cases, openly critical.
“It was a stressful season,” said Shane Flanagan, who was in his fifth season as an assistant coach under his father. “We all felt it but a lot of kids aren’t used to that, especially freshmen.”
UNM’s coaches hoped the season under fire would ultimately pay off. The Lobos began spring individual workouts and Flanagan was confident his freshmen would return with greater confidence in 2011-12.
But as he met with them individually, the freshmen informed Flanagan they did not intend to return for another season. He initially tried to change some of the players’ minds but was unable to convince them to stay.
“That was too bad,” Flanagan said. “That was a pretty decent group of recruits but things never quite panned out with them. Some of them got homesick and I think some just weren’t that committed to playing basketball. It was an unusual situation, that’s for sure.”
With one year left on his contract, Flanagan decided filling out a roster with late recruits would not be productive. The winningest coach in UNM history opted to step down in early April.
Shockwaves were felt inside and outside the Davalos Center.
“(The freshmen) didn’t even tell us they were leaving,” then-Lobo sophomore Emily Stark said. “First we lost them and then we lost our coach. We had a really hard time with that.”
Jourdan Erskine, also a sophomore in 2010-11, found some of the defections more shocking than others.
“We knew Tina was leaving,” Erskine said, “and even kind of expected Erin. The other three surprised us like everyone else.”
The freshmen remained at UNM through the spring semester, but things became increasingly tense. They declined all requests to explain their reasons for leaving and began taking fan criticism through social media and other media outlets.
Sanchez, who was named interim coach while UNM conducted a search for Flanagan’s replacement, encouraged the freshmen to make some sort of public statement.
“I asked them several times,” she said, “but they all just wanted to move on.”
Their final appearance was at UNM’s annual banquet, where the players were introduced and, in some cases, received awards. The freshmen politely declined to address their impending departures.
“I thought everyone handled themselves well that night, players and coaches,” said Behrend, master of ceremonies at the banquet. “It was awkward but there was an element of class, considering the situation.”
The freshmen’s code of silence fueled speculation that ranged from reasonable to ridiculous, but there is now little to suggest any group agenda in their departures from UNM.
“I never thought there was any conspiracy,” Sanchez said. “At the end of the day, those kids just thought they’d be happier somewhere else.”
Todd Doughty, father of Tina Doughty, also dismissed any conspiracy theories. Contacted shortly after the players left UNM, Doughty said his daughter had decided to transfer midway through her freshman season and was surprised when the other freshman also opted to leave.
At the time of their departure, Don Flanagan said that some of the freshmen told him “they don’t even want to play basketball anymore.” But ultimately, three of the five are known to have continued their careers elsewhere.
Tina Doughty transferred to Utah Valley University and briefly discussed the decision in a 2013 story published in the school’s student newspaper.
“I was just really set on coming to a bigger school, and I realize that that’s not really what it’s all about,” Doughty told the UVU Review. “It’s more of where you’re happy, and basketball isn’t everything.”
Doughty played for the Wolverines in 2012-13 and for most of last season before leaving the program for personal reasons. Utah Valley women’s basketball contact Kellen Hiser said Doughty obtained a release to play at a non-Division I school but did not know which program she intended to join.
The other four ex-Lobos sought happiness closer to home.
Toben, an Oklahoma native, transferred to Oklahoma State but did not initially plan to play basketball there. After sitting out the 2011-12 season, friends convinced her to approach coach Jim Littell about walking on. Toben did so and was later awarded a scholarship, apparently with no hard feelings about her time at UNM.
“I enjoyed playing basketball at New Mexico,” Toben told the Owasso Reporter in 2013. “It was just too far away from home. I was not happy being that far from my family and friends, so I decided to transfer to OSU so I could be close to everyone.”
She played one season with the Cowgirls before leaving to attend pharmacy school in Tulsa.
Boettcher, who is from Northern California, is the one member of UNM’s 2010-11 freshman class still on a Division I basketball roster. She got closer to home with a transfer to the University of Portland and will be a senior this season.
As she was at UNM, Boettcher remains quiet, Portland women’s basketball contact Adam Linman said. She declined an interview request for this story but is happy and doing well at Portland, Linman said.
Less information is available about Patterson and Taylor, who grew up together in Amarillo. Sanchez has communicated with them via social media and said both are living in Amarillo and raising young sons.
Neither played college basketball again after leaving the Lobos, though they may have had opportunities. Former UNM assistant coach Dave Shoemate said he spoke to a colleague at West Texas A&M who said his program reached out to Patterson and Taylor but got no response.
Dealing with loss
Part of the former Lobo freshmen’s silence may have to do with the unrest their departures created. Some fans blamed them for Flanagan’s early exit and the program’s ensuing struggles.
Even former teammates admit they initially felt abandoned by the group.
“That whole next season was really tough,” Erskine said. “With everything that happened we wanted to win so bad for the fans and for ourselves. It was just such a struggle and you had to wonder how different it could have been.”
Erskine and Stark said they see occasional Facebook posts by the one-year Lobos but otherwise have had no contact with them.
Former members of UNM’s then-coaching staff said they have not kept track of the players since they left Albuquerque. However, they harbor no hard feelings.
“They’re all great kids,” Shane Flanagan said. “That doesn’t change just because things didn’t work out at UNM.”
Sanchez says she doesn’t think the five players considered the long-term impact their departures would have, but she’s not surprised some Lobo fans remain curious about them three years later.
“They were 18-year-old kids when they were here,” Sanchez said. “They probably thought they could just keep quiet, leave and it would all just go away. Maybe elsewhere it would have, but women’s basketball is a huge deal here and our fans want to know everything.
“I don’t know if they really understood that.”
Shoemate believes the five freshmen were talented enough to keep UNM competitive in the Mountain West if they had stayed. However, he doesn’t share any ongoing fascination Lobo fans may have for members of the lost class.
“You never expect something like that,” he said, “but I’m way beyond wondering about it. I think a lot more about the kids who stayed for four years and went on to be successful. There are a lot more of them.”