Croner has bond with basketball
By Mike London
GREENSBORO — Tracey Croner’s oldest friend is basketball, and it’s a relationship she couldn’t give up on.
Croner leads Guilford and ranks sixth in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in scoring despite not playing organized basketball last season.
“With this team and this school, I feel like I’ve got my life back on track,” Croner said following a home game with Eastern Mennonite on Saturday.
Croner enjoyed a strong senior season at East Rowan in 2005, averaging 15.1 points, earning All-Rowan County and All-NPC honors and graduating as one of the top 20 scorers in school history.
At 5-foot-9 and equipped with ordinary quickness, Croner didn’t harbor any illusions about playing at a Division I school. At the same time, the left-hander had the shooting touch, the competitive spirit and the grades to play somewhere at the next level.
Division III Guilford wanted Croner out of high school, and Croner nearly wanted the Quakers.
“Tracey had a really big interest in Guilford,” explained coach Stephanie Flamini, who is in her fourth season. “But she was honest with us through the whole process, told us she was deciding between playing at Guilford or going to Coastal Carolina and not playing. It was basketball or the beach. She chose the beach, and it was understandable.”
Croner enjoyed Coastal, and she assumed playing intramurals would take care of her basketball fix. She also believed she could yawn when Coastal started hoops practice, but just walking into a gym and hearing balls bouncing was painful.
“I’d call my mom up crying and say, ‘Oh, why didn’t I play? I could be playing right now,’ ” Croner said.
Croner’s parents, Jeff and Linda, contacted Flamini. Flamini said she’d still love to have Tracey.
“Tracey missed basketball, but she wanted to give Coastal a full year, so we let her have her space,” said Flamini, who coached North Rowan standout Courtney Hill to an All-ODAC season in 2005.
It took Croner a few months to arrive at her final answer, but she decided to transfer to Guilford.
“I knew I’d miss the beach, so in a way it was a hard decision, but in some ways it was easy,” Croner said. “I knew I might be kind of rusty, but I still had basketball in my heart.”
Croner started her life at Guilford as a sophomore business management major, but she didn’t start for the basketball team right away. She struggled a bit after taking a year off, but she contributed off the bench the first seven games and led in scoring once.
Her breakout game came on Dec. 6. Croner didn’t start against Emory & Henry, but she poured in 26 points and led the Quakers to a 70-57 victory. Since that explosion, she’s been a lineup fixture.
“It was tough getting back out there at first, just getting used to game situations,” Croner said. “But then it was like I got this spark. It all started coming back, and I knew this was the feeling I’d been missing all last year.”
Croner scored 51 points in a two-game binge against Virginia Wesleyan and Lynchburg in early January and averages 13.7 points and 3.4 rebounds for a young team that’s struggling with a 7-14 record. She scored 13 points and pulled down eight boards in a 78-66 loss on Saturday.
Croner is a superb stand-still shooter, someone who could clean a county fair out of stuffed animals. She’s 37-for-42 from the line, ranks third in the league in field-goal percentage (50.2) and is above 50 percent on her occasional 3-point tries.
She missed some open shots Saturday, but she still was an asset. In 18 first-half minutes, she had no fouls and no turnovers.
The surprising thing about Croner’s success is she’s a post player for the Quakers. In two of her three varsity seasons at East, the Mustangs had Maggie Rich and Jordan Huffman rebounding, so Croner played on the perimeter. She’s just about exclusively in the paint now, trading elbows and hip-checks with players that are heavier, taller and stronger.
“It’s hard to tell a girl she needs to gain weight, but I have to get stronger,” Croner said with a laugh. “When I first got in there, they would just poke me a little and push me right out of the lane.”
Flamini said Croner must be a frontcourt player in the ODAC where guards are small but exceptionally quick. Flamini hopes to add size to the roster next season to take pressure off Croner.
“There’s a lot on Tracey right now — she’s got the toughest job,” Flamini said. “After the first time around the league, she’s the one everyone has been concentrating on. But she’s kept right on playing well. She’s our best shot at having an all-conference player.”
Croner has made an impression on the Quakers as a tough competitor and reliable teammate.
“Tracey had to turn into a post player in just two months,” said 5-7 co-captain Brittany Bumgarner, who starred at West Forsyth. “She always has to box out bigger people, but she gets over-the-back calls for us. She’s valuable because she scores inside and outside. And you never wonder going into a game what you’ll get from her because you’re gonna get 100 percent of everything she has.”
Guilford’s Ragan-Brown Field House is beautiful, but Croner played in front of a crowd on Saturday much smaller than those at East.
It helps that her parents make every game — even the frequent road trips to Virginia.
Several long-time friends, including former East cheerleader Kristen Trexler, also made the trip Saturday to support Croner.
Croner is adjusting to a smaller school in a bigger city. But she’s comfortable with her decision to make a comeback, and her teammates are comfortable watching the southpaw set shots swish.
“If you know Tracey,” Bumgarner said, “it’s hard to imagine her not playing basketball.”
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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