CHARLES TOWN – Jenna Eckleberry grew up idolizing her older sister, Jade.
In third grade, she wrote a 12-page book about how her then fourth-grade sister would go on to play basketball at the University of Connecticut and be the first woman to play in the NBA.
Of course, Jade outscored Michael Jordan while playing for the Chicago Bulls.
In reality, Jade went on to play college basketball at Wheeling Jesuit while earning a degree in nursing. But her younger sister, Jenna, who would go on to play basketball at the collegiate level herself – at Fairmont State – has never lost touch with the game and now finds herself knee-deep in the recruiting process as the new head coach of the Shepherd University women’s basketball program.
The younger Eckleberry was named Rams’ head coach on May 13 after seven years as an assistant coach at her alma mater, Fairmont State.
Eckleberry replaces Toni West, who held the position at Shepherd for one season but did not have her contract renewed after Shepherd struggled to a 4-23 record this past winter.
Fairmont State is a Mountain East Conference rival of Shepherd.
“I’m still flying high,” Eckleberry said last week during a Shepherd University athletic department and booster’s reception at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. “I just can’t believe it still. But I was very fortunate to get into college coaching right after I got done playing in college. It was very important.”
A 2002 graduate of Oak Glen High School in Chester, W.Va., Eckleberry played three seasons at Fairmont State after transferring from Division I Robert Morris following a coaching change her freshman year.
Longtime Fairmont State head coach Steve McDonald, who recruited Eckleberry back to her home state following a year in Pennsylvania, told WBOY-TV in January that Eckleberry’s knowledge of the game made her a prime coaching candidate after her playing career ended.
Eckleberry remained with the Falcons’ program first as a graduate assistant before becoming a full-time assistant coach.
During her time in Fairmont, the Falcons won three conference titles and made three NCAA Division II postseason tournament appearances.
“I’ve always said Shepherd is a great place,” she said. “Talking with family I always said if there was another team in the league that I’d want to be at, it’s Shepherd. I feel like you can succeed year in and year out here. I think with the talent here and the potential coming back, I’m excited. I’m looking forward to it.”
Eckleberry said that she has wanted to be a coach for a long time.
“When I started playing AAU basketball in the fifth grade, I always wanted to go watch other teams play when I wasn’t playing,” she said. “Just starting from that moment and watching other teams play and scouting them all the way back then, I just knew. I knew if I couldn’t play, the next best thing was being a coach.”
Eckleberry said those feelings were instilled at an early age as she and her sister were coached by their father, Randy.
“Growing up we were always watching sports, and he would tell me about any sport that was on,” she said. “Mostly football and basketball, but I could tell how he was analyzing the game. That intrigued me.”
Eckleberry inherits a program coming off a difficult season in which Shepherd suffered through a 12-game losing streak and another run in which the Rams dropped nine of 10 games to begin the year.
There are, however, some bright spots.
Shepherd returns its top-three scorers from last season, including two rising seniors and the reigning Mountain East Conference Freshman of the Year.
Senior forward Gabby Flinchum led Shepherd with nearly 16 points and eight rebounds per game last season, while senior guard Rachel Johnson netted 13 points per contest.
Sophomore guard Cara Mason dazzled the league as its top newcomer while scoring nearly 12 points per game and adding a team-high 42 steals and 59 assists.
“The best attribute (Gabby and Rachel) can bring is their leadership,” Eckleberry said. “That’s something I’m really looking for from them this year. I coached against them for three years. I know what they can do and how to bring out their strengths.”
“I told Cara, ‘Don’t settle for being Freshman of the Year,’” she continued. “Next thing, be first-team all-conference. And do it as a sophomore and don’t wait for your senior year. I think she definitely has the ability to do that. One thing I’ve learned from talking with Cara is how hard she works.”
Shepherd is also slated to return sophomore guard Maggie McLoughlin and sophomore forward Liz Myers, both of whom started several games as freshman last year. Senior guard Briana Vaden also figures to feature significantly after starting every game this past season.
Eckleberry has spent the last six weeks getting things in order, including her office and learning where the program stands with recruiting. She said the college basketball recruiting season is in full swing, and she has a lot of catching up to do as other programs have had the advantage of establishing relationships with high school prospects for the past year.
Eckleberry noted that one of her toughest jobs for the upcoming season would be coaching against McDonald and Fairmont State, a program with which she has strong ties and knows the players well.
“The players meant a lot to me at Fairmont,” she said. “I was really close with them, and it was really hard leaving them. But it’s going to be exciting because they’re going to know what I know about them. They better be practicing because I’m going to get them in the fall.”