Gary Plunkett envisioned a rough go of things in his first venture as a head coach. But even with a late start, small numbers and the lack of a recruiting class – not to mention having to endure a 10-game losing streak – the Chaffey College women’s basketball coach did not figure on battling so much uncertainty in his own mind. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECoach Doc Rivers a “fan” from way back of Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson Yes, the Panthers had reached the playoffs 15 consecutive seasons – three under previous head coach Dawn Baker and 12 in a row under Chris Stephens. But a quick fix doesn’t exist when you’re hired after the start of school, when the previous regime’s recruits have scattered without a coach in place and when you haven’t had the time to recruit or properly implement your own system. No, the fixes come with time, patience and faith. “We established our lineup and our rotation and we tightened it and firmed it up,” said Plunkett, whose team opens Foothill Conference action tonight at Barstow. “We refined what we do on offense and on defense. We focus on the positives and we focus on the improvements we’ve made.” Those improvements have been considerable. Chaffey is certainly a long shot, at best, to qualify for the playoffs after a 3-12 start. But the Panthers, who have lost eight games by nine points or less, have won two of their last three games and are finally getting comfortable with Plunkett calling the shots. “There’s always self-doubt,” Plunkett said. “Is it the wrong offense? Is it the wrong lineup? Is it something I’m doing wrong in practice? I was seeking advice from some of my mentors.” The answers he got? Don’t change a thing. Turnovers are down. The offensive and defensive schemes are becoming sound. With the preseason behind it, Chaffey has nowhere to go but up. “I’m not worried about nobody in conference,” said Unique Bennett, one of two sophomores on the team. “If we play the way we’ve been playing the last four or five games, we’ll roll over everybody in conference.” That might have been an easier chore to complete in years past, when the Foothill Conference was a two-team show with Antelope Valley and Chaffey at the top. This year, expect a bit more parity and a lot more competition. Defending Foothill Conference champion Antelope Valley is off to a 10-7 start, with injuries keeping the Marauders from fielding their projected starting five. But Cerro Coso (12-3), Rio Hondo (11-6), Mt. San Jacinto (8-5) and Barstow (9-7) have already surpassed last year’s win totals, while the Panthers are a shell of the team that won 23 regular season games and gave the Marauders their only real competition in conference action. “It takes some time,” said Antelope Valley coach John Taylor, who has built the Marauders’ women’s program into a state power. “Any time you come in and it’s your first gig it takes quite a while.” The circumstances at Chaffey made it especially difficult to expect to contend this season. Baker compiled a 61-29 overall record and a 37-8 mark in conference and then Chaffey learned in June that its three-year coach would not return. By the time Plunkett was hired in late August, the fall semester had begun, some potential incoming recruits had left for other local colleges and the Panthers had completed the summer tournament league with just six players. It didn’t get much easier when Plunkett took over. The Panthers barely had enough for five-on-five drills and they had a tough schedule with some of the top teams in the state. By the time an early December 65-56 loss against conference foe Barstow hit – which came in the middle of the 10-game losing streak – the Panthers were reeling. “I felt they were at a point where they might start to give up on the season and on each other,” Plunkett said. “You can almost point to that game and say that’s where we nearly lost it. It was either we pull together or we fall apart. We had a heart-to-heart and it really changed them. They’ve responded.” Two games later, the Panthers nearly erased a 30-point deficit in a loss to Grossmont. They played No. 8 Orange Coast and San Diego Mesa close in losses and then put together a two-game winning streak (over Fullerton and Los Angeles City) that had the Panthers beaming with confidence. Over that time, freshman Lillie Parks (12.9 ppg) and Bennett (12.1 ppg) had begun to develop a formidable inside-outside game, freshman Mary Barbera had improved dramatically at point guard, turnovers were dropping and the offense was increasing its output. “I knew it was going to be difficult with (Plunkett) coming in for his first year,” said Roel, whose team snapped a winning streak with a 70-47 loss to El Camino on Friday. “But we’re starting to get it together.” 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!