Women's basketball is young, energized and ready

By The Beacon | November 7, 2012 9:00pm

Despite the prospect of losing their top scorer, the Pilots look to the energy and effort of the young talent for success.

(Jackie Jeffers | THE BEACON)

By Taylor Tobin, Staff Writer tobint16@up.edu

The women's basketball team may be young, but they are ready to take on this season with energy and hard work. The Pilots have no seniors and just three juniors on the team, leaving little experience on a team that finished 11-17 overall and a 7-9 WCC record last season.

However, the team is embracing is youth. The team's atmosphere is livelier this year, due in part to the energy brought by five new freshmen, guards Ellen Nurmi, Allison Ryan, Jazmyn Johnson and forwards Sara Ines Hernandez and Annika Holopainen. Junior guard Alexis Byrd says their energy on the court pushes the team forward.

"It's ten times more fun this year because we have a young team. Usually when you first get to college, you have a lot of energy, so it's good that they bring that to the table," Byrd said. "It just keeps reinforcing for us older girls to bring energy everyday to the court."

Sophomore guard Jasmine Wooton says one major advantage to having a young team is that they get to shape their roles this season and perfect them for next year. Wooton also enjoys this years's young squad.

"I actually love it. It's not that last year's team was terrible, but this year the comaraderie is so much better," Wooton said. "Everyone is actually friends, not just teammates, which is great."

As far as goals for the season, head coach Jim Sollars said their ultimate goals are always winning games, a WCC title and going to the NCAA tournament. But this year they have tried to establish more process-oriented goals.

"Young teams have the tendency not to focus for the solid two hours and that's happened, but we're getting better," Sollars said. "I think they're doing a really good job of trying to understand that it's a process. If you do the process correctly, the end results will take care of themselves."

Sollars said the team needs to focus on playing hard, taking the right shots, and hitting the open people.

"All the little things that make you a better team, that's what we've got to focus on, and not worry a lot about the score," Sollars said.

The team's leadership this year has not suffered despite having no seniors. Sollars said Byrd, who averaged 7.7 points per game, and junior forward Amy Pupa, the leading rebounder from the 2011-12 season at 5.3 per game, have done a great job stepping up as team leaders.

Last spring, Byrd and Pupa went through leadership training once a week where they discussed solutions to issues that could arise during this season. Byrd, Pupa and Sollars say the preparation was helpful.

"I think they have done a really nice job," Sollars said. "Really taking over the reigns of the little issues that we don't have to deal with. Somebody's upset with their boyfriend, those kind of things. It happens."

Byrd said she felt weird going into the season having to be a leader as a junior, but her coaches prepared her well.

"It was a different transition, but I think we've got it down," Byrd said. "I like to motivate my teammates on the court by trying to energize them, and being upbeat. I like to make them feel like they're the best out there."

Pupa notes that it helps that the team is close this year. She believes a lot of the comaraderie has to do with off-the-court bonding. The Pilots recently volunteered at a low-income elementary school together, where they played at recess with kids and taught them the fundamentals of basketball.

"It's just fun to do stuff together and give back to the community," Pupa said. "A lot of the kids come out to our games afterward because they look up to us. They tell us that they have our poster in their room. It's cute."

This year's team does not have a large gap in ability and experience on the court, because they are all so close in age.

"There are no huge superstars on the team," Pupa said. "We're all just together working really hard, playing off each other's strengths and getting better as a group."

The Pilots are not sure if last year's second-highest WCC scorer and top Pilot's scorer, junior Cassandra Brown, who averaged 9.9 points per game, will be a able to play this season due to an offseason surgery to repair an injury to her sternum.

"She may have to redshirt this year. We should know within a month whether she will be there to help or not," Sollars said. "It would be a great help if she could come, because she's our best shooter."

Brown hit a career-high of 32 points in the second round of the WCC Championships last year against the Santa Clara Broncos, becoming the first person to hit the 30-point mark in a game for the Pilots since 2009.

Even if Brown is unable to play, the Pilots are ready to show their hard work on the court. They hope that Pilot fans will come out to support them this year, something that has not been the case in past years.

"I want them to know that it's going to be a completely different season," Wooton said. "They're going to have a lot of exciting things to watch."

Freshman Jazmyn Johnson weaves through a dribbling course during morning practice with assistant coach Sean Kelly carefully observing her technique. (Jackie Jeffers | THE BEACON)