There was no one else by her side to endure the growing pains of joining the UConn women’s basketball program in 2009. Kelly Faris was the lone freshman on a team that had finished 39-0 the previous season and featured All-Americans Tina Charles and Maya Moore and fifth-year senior Kalana Greene.
Faris understood that she had to immediately do the right things if she was going to fit in and fortify a spot in the Huskies’ primary rotation. And, by doing the right things, that meant working hard each day in practice, working hard in the weight room and maturing at a steady rate.
None of this proved to be much of a problem for Faris, a tough-as-nails 5-foot-11 senior guard. UConn coach Geno Auriemma raved about Faris that preseason. She went on to average 4.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 18.9 minutes for another 39-0 team.
The lessons Faris learned as a freshman provided a firm foundation for a career that has seen her blossom into a leader. When she is introduced Friday as part of First Night festivities at Gampel Pavilion (7 p.m.), know that she is now recognized as a source of strength and stability on a team that again has an opportunity to finish 39-0.
“I’m going to do the best that I can to do that,’’ Faris said in terms of providing leadership for the Huskies. “I know Coach kind of looked at me last year to do certain things. And, obviously, I wasn’t the oldest. So this year will be a little different now that I’m actually the oldest. Not that that’s what he really looks at for a leader. He always says he doesn’t care if you’re a freshman or a senior. So I’m going to do everything that I possibly can to get done what he wants to get done and be somebody that the underclassmen can look up to and ask questions. And if they need something I’m going to do the best I can to have the answer for them.’’
In order for a player to be a leader, they must first have gained the trust and the respect of their teammates. Faris has earned both through her unwavering work ethic, her ability to lead by example and assuming more of a vocal leadership role last season when the Huskies needed someone to emerge.
Sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said that there is little doubt right now that Faris, who has started the last 76 games for the Huskies, is a bonafide leader of this group.
“Kelly has stepped up 100 percent to be the leader on this team,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. “She was not vocal before and now she realizes that she needs to be and she’s taken on the role and been fine with it. And no one on this team has a problem with listening to Kelly Faris. No one on this team has a problem taking direction from her because she knows what she’s doing, she’s been there and everybody trusts her.’’
Said Faris: “I have become a bit more vocal and it may have taken me longer than most to feel comfortable doing it. I’m still not going to be someone that will get in someone’s face, but I will call someone out if I have to because I refuse to let things slide. But my way to lead is to do what the coaches ask, go as hard as I can and encourage others to go as hard as they can, and try to hold everyone accountable as I want them to hold me accountable.’’
Faris won’t necessarily impress with gaudy statistics. She averaged 6.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, a team-high 4.3 assists, 2.1 steals and 28.9 minutes last season. She also led the Huskies in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1).
But it is how Faris conducts herself on and off the court that has a lasting impact on her teammates.
“I’ve been Kelly’s lifting partner and Kelly’s partner in conditioning for the past two years and I think that is the best thing that has ever happened to me since I’ve come to Connecticut,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. “She is the best person to push me. She is the best person to be around. And it’s not even that she says anything to me, it’s just how she leads by example. Kelly Faris is the definition of doing all the little things, and I’ve been trying to emulate her and do the things that she does on and off the court. And I think that in the long run that’s going to help me because Kelly’s gone next year and I don’t want the things that Kelly does to be gone even if she is.’’
Faris, who has a chance to join Moore as the only players in team history to amass 1,000 points (710), 750 rebounds (598), 500 assists (389), and 250 steals (198), said that she has been preparing for her final season since the moment last season ended with an 83-75 loss to Notre Dame in overtime in the national semifinals in Denver.
As has been the norm throughout her career, Faris spent the off-season trying to become a more consistent shooter and trying to improve her ballhandling skills.
“Everything is different,’’ Faris said. “You don’t have another chance. I think it hits you harder and harder as you go along. I’ve done my last summer workouts. This is my last preseason.
“You try to stay in the moment. You’re taught here to take things one at a time, one day at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time. You can’t get ahead of yourself. But you’re also human and I do wonder, `What am I going to be doing next year after I graduate? Am I going to be playing?’ But I’ll worry about that later. This is my last chance and I want to go out with a bang and do it the right way.’’
Much has changed for Faris over the last three seasons. She has gone from a player content to work hard in the shadow of her teammates to one willing to lead by example and vocally.
Faris credits her growth to Auriemma and the way he runs his program, emphasizing success on and off the court. Each time Faris steps on the court her growth is something to behold.
“I think a lot of programs are different in the fact that they don’t have what we have in the fact that Coach is very all about life lessons,’’ Faris said. “And I know a lot of coaches are like that, but I think he really, really strives on working on the court and off the court whether it’s in life or basketball. And there’s always little subtle things that he’s saying to us or he may not even be saying it but he’s trying show us another way of how to go about a certain situation or that type of thing. And the rest of the coaching staff as well. So I think that’s one thing that I really tried to pay attention to because once I got here it was easy to kind of figure out that’s the type of person he is and that’s what he tries to do. So he’s definitely helped me grow quite a bit off the court and on the court.’’