NEW YORK – Erin Rooney has been the catalyst for the women's basketball revival at Fordham the last two seasons.
After leading the Rams within a point of their first NCAA tournament bid in 19 years last season, Rooney has the team off to its best start in school history.
"She is a special player," Fordham coach Stephanie Gaitley said. "She's one of the very best I've ever coached."
It's crazy to think that the New Zealand native almost never came to the school.
Rooney was recruited by Gaitley when the coach was at Monmouth. Twice, Gaitley went to see Rooney play, but the guard was hampered by sprained ankles, once in Las Vegas and once when Gaitley made the 8,000-mile journey to New Zealand.
Even without seeing her play much on the court, Gaitley was thoroughly impressed by Rooney's leadership skills.
"She was a natural leader even though she couldn't do too much on the court," said Gaitley, who offered her a scholarship.
When Gaitley left for Fordham in 2011, Rooney almost wasn't going to come with her coach. Rooney wanted to be a neuroscience major and Fordham didn't offer it. But Gaitley convinced the young star to at least visit the Bronx campus. Luck was on Gaitley's side as Rooney learned in a meeting with a science professor that the school would be offering the major in the future so she decided to return the trust her coach had shown and transfer to Fordham.
"She has been a second mother to me since I came to the U.S. so I felt I should stay with her," Rooney said.
The move paid off. After sitting out a season because of NCAA transfer rules, Rooney has led the Rams to unprecedented heights. She was the team's second-leading scorer last season and helped Fordham to its first winning season since 1994-95. Rooney and the Rams made it to the Atlantic 10 tournament title game where they fell just short against Saint Joseph's, losing 47-46.
"I watched the game a lot last season as it really hurt," she said. "Finally after the WNIT I knew it was time to move on."
Rooney said she hasn't watched the game since, but keeps it fresh in her mind.
"I definitely want to lead us to the NCAA tournament," Rooney said. "It's the only college sporting event they show in New Zealand and I've watched it for years."
The Rams got an early jump on the season with a summer trip to New Zealand. Rooney got to show her teammates her home.
"It was great going home," she said. "What was funny was that all of my teammates were taken in by how beautiful New Zealand is and asked why I would ever leave."
It's good for the Rams that she did. This season she's already led them to 13 wins in their first 16 games — the fastest start in school history. Rooney is averaging over 20 points and had 22 in the Rams' first home loss of the season Wednesday night, a 65-61 defeat to Duquesne. That snapped a 12-game overall winning streak, the longest in school history.
Down 19 points with just under 6 minutes left, she got the Rams within three before they fell just short.
"It definitely hurts, but we have a tough few games in front of us," Rooney said. "As coach said, this is a really tough conference and we need to be ready."
The loss hurt more as Rooney's parents were in the stands. They have been in the U.S. since the middle of December, visiting.
"It was always hard when I'd see my teammates after games talking to their families and mine wasn't there," she said. "It's so great that they have been here for the last few weeks."
While her parents are soon headed back to New Zealand, Rooney knows that she has unfinished business at Fordham. The schedule doesn't get any easier with games next week at VCU and Dayton.
"Every game is going to be tough, but I have confidence in our team," Rooney said.
And they have confidence in her.
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