NEWPORT NEWS ——John Krikorian admires the job Jon Waters has done. Not that long ago, he had to do it himself.
Krikorian, Christopher Newport's second-year men's basketball coach, was handed his first head coaching job, at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, on Oct. 5, 2006 — 10 days before practice started.
"I had to jump right in there," Krikorian said. "It was every day getting to know your kids and trying to keep it really simple so they can play with confidence and enjoy each other."
Krikorian's team went 14-12 that year, a respectable record and a four-game improvement from the previous season.
Waters, in his first — and, he insists, last — year as head coach of the CNU women's team, already has matched that win total. Waters' Captains are 15-3, 10-1 in the USA South and on a 10-game winning streak after Saturday's 62-53 victory at Methodist.
"Those kids are really enjoying playing basketball," said Krikorian, who takes a seat in the Freeman Center stands to watch Waters' team during doubleheaders. "You can see it. They're in the gym when we come into the office at 9 o'clock. They're out there working on their game. So whatever he's doing, he's got those kids enjoying playing. That's as much a part of it as anything, and it shows when they're out on the court."
In Waters' case, it wasn't just that he was appointed coach on Sept. 2, two and a half months before the Captains' Nov. 18 season opener. Or that he already had a job — and a very busy one at that — as CNU's senior associate director of athletics.
It was that the announcement of his hiring came on the same day that Carolyn Hunter, who went 265-103 in 13 seasons with the Captains and led them to their first Division III Final Four appearance less than six months earlier, abruptly resigned. And it was that as Waters hurriedly got to know his players, the top three scorers from 2010-11's 30-4 team were gone — including Chelsie Schweers, the school's all-time leading scorer and the second-most prolific scorer in D-III history.
"I knew the veterans," Waters said. "I had no clue (about) the whole group or the rest of them. I knew three or four people by name, and they kind of knew me, and I was thinking, 'Man, don't screw this up.' "
Safe to say that hasn't happened.
The Captains, picked to finish third in the USA South preseason poll, are atop the conference, with their one league loss coming Dec. 3 in a 64-60 defeat to Methodist. Since then, CNU has won seven conference games by an average of 18.2 points, including a 48-42 victory at then-No. 20 and preseason favorite Greensboro on Jan. 14.
"I felt like they would be near the top of the league," said Ferrum coach Bryan Harvey, whose team, picked to finish second in the conference, fell 66-62 to the Captains on Jan. 8. "Our goal going into every season is to win a conference championship, and to do that you usually have to go through CNU, and you have to go through Greensboro. I don't think that's going to change. Their personnel is going to change, (but) they're always going to recruit well and bring in good, solid kids, and they're going to be good year after year.
"I think people are glad they don't have to game plan and stop Chelsie anymore, but I don't think people thought it was going to be easy to beat CNU."
While Waters' team focuses on the basic concepts he employed in 19 years as an assistant to 26-year men's coach C.J. Woollum — solid defense and an offense built around the fast break — his players say the playbook has actually grown thicker in Schweers' absence.
"We have more plays than we did last year," senior guard Jerlisa Bowser said. "You can score off this, off this, or this. There was more of a focus last year on Chelsie. This year, we're distributing the ball a lot more, and I think that helps us a lot."
Bowser averages almost eight points per game as part of a balanced CNU offense led by sophomore guard Tia Perry's 11.9 points per game. Perry, a product of Tabb High, also leads the Captains with 6.9 rebounds per game, edging sophomore forward Nicole Mitchell, who averages 6.2 boards and 10.6 points.
Senior guard Kimmy Hopkins contributes 8.4 points per game, and freshman center Camry Green has added a dependable post presence, averaging 7.1 points and 6.2 rebounds.
"Sometimes we'll go out there and he'll give us a play and he wants us to run it to the T, and then other times, he's telling us, make a play off of whatever he drew up," Mitchell said. "We're a team that thrives off of that."
Waters has made a concerted effort to make sure his players are comfortable.