She has been on the offense since she was five, topped LeBron James, and is now mounting a fury of points for VCU.
Marlene Stollings, head coach of the VCU women’s basketball team, will forever go down in Ohio history as having outscored Miami Heat forward LeBron James. In their four seasons of high-school play, Stollings (1989 – 1993) scored a cumulative 3,514 points to James’s 2,646 (1999 – 2003).1
Stollings’s offensive vigor began when she started playing basketball at age five in rural Ohio and has continued through the FURY!2 she helms as coach of the VCU women’s basketball team.
“When you start playing basketball as a kid, the biggest thing you’re trying to do is put the ball in the basket,” Stollings said. “You’re not worried about anything beyond that.”
Some players curb their offense-minded play as they age, but Stollings embraced it further after she began playing in leagues at age seven. “I wanted to master [offense] and master that at a high level,” Stollings said. “To the point that I started taking countless shots, ultimately setting the record in Ohio for the most points ever.”3
“I knew I was never going to be the fastest kid out there. I knew I was never going to be the most athletic kid out there,” she said. “But I really felt I could put the ball in the basket and that’d be my niche.”
It became a successful and sought after niche. After graduating high school, Stollings attended Ohio State “basically fulfilling my childhood dream of playing for the Buckeyes.” Two years later she transferred to Ohio University where she led the conference in scoring.
After finishing college, Stollings played professionally in Switzerland. But while sinking buckets for Swiss audiences, Stollings eyed rumblings back in the US. “It was a very interesting time in the women’s game because the WNBA and the ABL were starting up,” Stollings said. She left Switzerland after one season. “I basically came back to train and be a part of that.”
Stollings wasn’t alone. Women from across the world traveled to the US to join a team in either league. But a once promising bubble burst when the ABL folded. “You had women who had been playing overseas for eight to 10 years coming back, and they were all flooding the market to the WNBA.” Stollings and other women fought for roster spots on a limited number of teams.
She attended a three-week training camp with the Utah Stars, where she survived to the last day of camp. “Basically, [I] got to the last day of cuts and thought I was safe,” she said. “That morning I got a tap on the shoulder…” She’d been cut. “That was pretty crushing.”
“At that point I was deciding: should I continue playing overseas and ride this out, or do I want to get started on my coaching career? I opted to get involved and get started in coaching.”
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Stollings’s eventual foray into coaching wasn’t a back up plan, but something she’d thought about since middle school.
“I started getting recruited when I was in the seventh grade by Division 1 institutions,” Stollings said. “As things progressed, coaches were coming to watch [me play], and coming to my school, and all that kind of stuff.”
“I thought: one day, when I finish playing, I think that’d be a pretty neat thing to do because it made such an impression on my life, I thought it’d give me an avenue and opportunity to make a positive impression on a lot of other young lives.”
She became an assistant coach at Jacksonville University, a promising start only mired by the loss of not competing on the court. “[Coaching] wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, because I missed playing tremendously,” she said. “It took a good, solid two years after I finished playing before I finally got to where I was OK with it.”
Starting at the bottom of the totem pole, she made only $16,000 a year, slept on an air mattress, and because most of her salary went towards her rent, owned little more than clothes, a TV with rabbit ears, and a lawn chair.
Over time, she climbed the coaching totem pole, becoming head coach at Winthrop, where she was named the 2012 Big South Conference Coach of the Year after leading the Eagles to the program’s second winning season (18-13) in 26 years. That got people’s attention.
“I’m driving home from work, and I get a phone call from an 804 area code,” Stollings said. When she picked up, she heard the voice of VCU’s former associate athletic administrator, Mike Ellis, asking if Stollings would like to coach the women’s basketball team. Having just completed her first year at Winthrop, Stollings had no reason to leave, but she told Ellis she’d entertain the position at VCU.
But the more she thought about VCU, the more enthused she became. Not only was VCU planning a jump in conference from the CAA to the Atlantic 10, it also had the success of Shaka Smart and the men’s basketball team pushing its sail. Within two weeks, Stollings was headed to Richmond.
In Stollings’s first season at VCU (2012 – 2013), she focused on rebuilding the women’s basketball team and program. “There wasn’t much here,” she said. “We had 11 players on the roster, we knew we did not have a point guard, which is no different than a quarterback in football. Without a point guard you’re very limited.”
Stollings and VCU lured players with scholarships, and finished her first season with an 11-19 record. “We were trying mostly to establish a culture, an identity,” Stollilngs said. “What we wanted to be about and who we wanted to be.”
By the time the current 2013 – 2014 season arrived, they’d decided to be a dominating force. Currently, the team is 15 – 3,4 having built an 11-game winning streak snapped only last week by La Salle (the team won its following game against defending A-10 champs St. Joseph’s last Sunday and lost a heartbreaker at home to Fordham last night).
This season, FURY!’s breakneck success even exceeds that of the men’s team (who currently sport a 13-4). But Stollings isn’t jealous of the inequitable attention given to HAVOC!.
“We came in looking at it as though we could ride the coattails of what they had done,” Stollings said. “[Shaka Smart] and his staff are all in. They’re 100 percent supportive of what we do–couldn’t ask for a better men’s staff to work alongside.” She said the two basketball head coaches often “pick each other’s brains” and attend the other’s practices.
This partnership between the two programs has resulted in the women’s team receiving their own moniker: they’re the FURY! to the men’s HAVOC!
Much of that on-the-court fury takes root in Stolling’s offense-minded play, a style more fun for fans at the Siegel Center to watch. “I don’t think too many people like to watch a game in the 40s or 50s,” Stolling said. “We want to put points on the board and make it fun.”
Stolling’s ambitions go beyond the court to the surrounding seats inside the Siegel Center. “We’re looking to draw fans. We’re looking to build attendance,” she said. “We have the goal and vision of selling out the Siegel Center as we progress this. We have the goal and vision of becoming a top-25 program, very similar to what Shaka has done on the men’s side.”
If Stolling’s playing career is any indication, The Stu will see a fury of buckets in the coming years.
The VCU Women’s Basketball team’s next home game is against Duquesne at the Siegel Center on Wednesday, January 22nd at 7:00 PM. Tickets are $7.
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- In a further besting of the Miami Heat forward, Stollings ranks third in Ohio women’s basketball history with scoring 69 points in a single game. Yet James’s game-high total doesn’t crack the men’s top 20 . ↩
- In contrast to the HAVOC! of the VCU men’s team. ↩
- The most points scored by a man was 3,208. ↩
- The team began 14 – 1, the best start to the program in 40 years. ↩