- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Taking a season away from the game didn't diminish Charli Turner Thorne's competitive drive. It was meant to reinvigorate it, to recharge the fire that Turner Thorne was afraid was starting to flicker after 20-something years of the coaching grind.
So when she checks the Pac-12 standings and sees her program -- which has finished no worse than fifth place in the past decade -- sitting at 4-11 and tied for 10th place, it hurts.
A recent seven-game losing streak, the program's longest since 1996-97, burns, as any baptism by fire would.
That's what Turner Thorne calls this experience for her young team, one she hoped wouldn't reach this point of frustration and struggle.
"It's tough," Turner Thorne said. "We are just trying to find ourselves. I'm excited about the strength of the Pac-12 this year, and it's hard for us not to be in the mix because we are used to that."
Though Arizona State scored a double-overtime victory over Arizona on Tuesday, this is not Sun Devils basketball as Turner Thorne has molded it. Arizona State has been one of the conference's most consistently successful programs since winning a co-title with Washington and Stanford in 2000-01.
Since that season, the Sun Devils have finished in second place on five occasions, third three times and in the lower half of the conference standings only once (2002-03).
Turner Thorne has taken ASU to eight NCAA appearances, including a run of five straight from 2005-2009. The Sun Devils reached the Elite Eight in 2009.
But the grind of life as a successful college basketball coach was wearing on Turner Thorne. The mother of three sons worried that she wasn't spending enough time with family, that she couldn't walk away from her job at the end of the day, even when she turned the lights out in her office and went home.
Turner Thorne returned from her ninth-month leave of absence in April, energized and ready.
But she wasn't under any illusions. Her absence was going to come at a cost to her program. She might have underestimated the price, particularly in recruiting.
"When I really step back and look at it, we probably lost two classes with the decision I made," Turner Thorne said. "On the other hand, I have a re-energized staff, we have signed two [recruits] that we love, Deja [Mann] will come back healthy … everything for a reason, you know?"
The only coach who has been with her Pac-12 program longer knows how this goes.
Tara VanDerveer left Stanford to coach the U.S. national team to a gold medal in the 1996 Olympic Games. Though the Cardinal reached the Final Four in the two years following her absence, it took a toll in terms of recruiting when it was time for the younger players to step in and play.
"It's not easy. You do get out of your rhythm a little bit, and I do think maybe they are paying a little bit of a price," VanDerveer said. "But it was something she needed to do for her life and her family, and I credit Charli and their administration, because they had someone who was very valuable who needed a sabbatical, and I think she'll be back next year with a little bit of a vengeance."
Turner Thorne came back to the gym to an exceedingly young team. Eight of the 11 players on her roster are in their first or second year with the program.
When veteran guard Mann, the team's leading scorer last season, went down with a knee injury in September, Turner Thorne started to get a sense of what the Sun Devils might be in for, playing a season with zero returning starters.
"Our kids have been getting some great lessons," Turner Thorne said. "We are trying to stay positive."
On Sunday, the Sun Devils grabbed a 12-point lead against No. 21 Colorado but couldn't hang on for the win.
Turner Thorne's growing frustration -- her program will almost assuredly post its first losing season since 1999-2000 and miss the postseason for the first time in 14 years -- was evident after the game, particularly about the defensive effort that has been her program's bread and butter.
"Tug your shirt if you can't play; otherwise get out there and dig in and play," Turner Thorne said in the postgame media session. "And we don't. It's beyond me why we have such lapses. Obviously we don't have that toughness that our teams normally have, but I think we've grown our toughness."
And her young players have gotten a load of experience.
"We are keeping it in perspective," Turner Thorne said. "What did we expect? No returning starters, nobody with a lot of experience. It's great to see how hard the conference has been because we can say, 'See where we need to go? These are the things we have to do.'"
Charli Turner Thorne returned from a nine-month leave feeling refreshed and reinvigorated. The downside? The Sun Devils are young, inexperienced and facing their first losing season in more than a decade.