You gotta have heart......why not make it a Heart of Gold?

It is important to understand one thing about the womenÕs basketball team as it prepares for the 2000-01 season: It lost its last game of 1999-00. Everyone involved with the program knows it.

There is no mention of moral victories, no talk of being happy to have been there. When the Commodores watched helplessly as two Louisiana Tech free throws fell successfully through the basket, they were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament plain and simple.

"Losing that game.....we knew we could have won it, and it kind of gave us a taste of what we know weÕre capable of doing and we have to keep building on it," junior forward Jillian Danker said. "I think about it all the time when I start to think about last year. We went through a lot of stuff. It was really a big growing time for a lot of us.

"We got so many new people this year that we have to kind of show them what it was like and show them how it feels so we can keep stepping up and going even further."

It is a unique squad that will take the floor for coach Jim Foster this fall. In some ways it is more experienced than any other team of recent seasons. At the same time, though, there are precious few upperclassmen and the majority of key players are still well short of graduation.

"This is the first time in three years we have players coming back from having won an NCAA Tournament game and I think thereÕs a significance to that," Foster said. "It reinforces that hard work will get you somewhere. This year, itÕs obvious that the returning players understand that.

"Therefore, the young players walk into a group of expectations that are higher than our young players have walked into in a couple of years."

A year ago, Chantelle Anderson and Ashley McElhiney joined a program that had finished below .500 and had missed out on a postseason berth for the first time in eight years. Now, they are the focal points of a faster-than expected resurrection that has Vanderbilt once again ranked in virtually every womenÕs basketball preseason poll.

"I think we started something," Foster said. "I just made a conscious decision that I wanted a certain kind of player in our gym, and we started going after that type of player again. Now weÕre getting that kind of player, and I think it started the end of last year.

"I think we were hungry. I think we were tougher mentally. I think we were not easily satisfied."

In fact, the presence of Anderson and McElhiney had Foster thinking about professional basketball during the offseason when he made his plans for this season. Not just womenÕs professional basketball either.

McElhiney is the point guard who took over for Ashley Smith late last season.

Smith no longer is with the team, having chosen to forgo her final season of eligibility. Neither is Debbie Black, the WNBA player who was hired last season as an assistant coach to work specifically with the point guards. The influence of the highly energetic and ever-determined Black remains, however, in the person of McElhiney.

"ItÕs almost like Debbie hasnÕt left the program because every day Ashley McElhiney has become what it was that Debbie was. In my mind, thatÕs who she is. SheÕs taking the charges; sheÕs on the floor for loose balls. SheÕs barking orders. SheÕs moving people around and she accepts that responsibility. ItÕs almost as if we've kept a coach and added another one."

Anderson, a 6-foot-6 center who was the teamÕs leading scorer, spent the summer with the Jones Cup team, which won a gold medal in international competition and played against the U.S. Olympic team.

Foster said he plans to use her in Shaquille OÕNeal-like fashion to take advantage of her unique mixture of size, savvy and skills. In addition to her contributions close to the basket, this season she also will play in the high post, where she can be an effective passer and playmaker.

"Chantelle and Ashley Mac were huge additions to the program and they were just freshmen," junior forward Zuzana Klimesova said. "I think they already feel much more confident this year. ItÕs very visible how much Chantelle has improved, and with Ashley É itÕs just like Debbie never left."

A sizable portion of the roster will be getting its first taste of NCAA competition, but has the credentials to raise expectations. Forward Jenni Benningfield is the two-time Gatorade Kentucky player of the year and reigning Miss Kentucky Basketball. Forward Jutta Korkko, from Finland, is the latest international addition and continues a trend that began with Klimesova. Juli Colli, whose AAU team finished third in the national tournament, and Hillary Hager, a multi-sport athlete and all-state selection in Pennsylvania, join the group of guards.

How closely they can match the successes of last season's freshmen will go a long way to determining whether this team can surpass the achievements of the previous one.

"A lot of us returning players got the chance to have a lot of experience and so, in that way, I guess we are old," said Danker, one of four returning starters. "For the newcomers, for the first few games, once they play and once they get a feel.... I was so nervous when I had my first game. I stepped on the floor and I totally forgot everything we had been doing.

"It is intense when you start playing against people youÕve only seen on TV or read about. All of the sudden you realize that theyÕre not the mythical basketball players they seem like and you have to guard them and you have to stop them and youÕre right there with them."

Vanderbilt is right back where it wants to be: one of the nation's most well regarded programs and with the opportunity to create a little mythology of its own.

"If these players look at the historical significance of this program.....we have been used to success, and there's an expectation level here," Foster said. "That disappeared for one year. If I go back to three years ago, we went into the NCAA Tournament, we were banged up and we lost a game (to UC-Santa Barbara) in overtime. You can look back....and you can somewhat rationalize that. You can't the next; you canÕt accept the next (a 13-14 record in 1998-99).

"The expectations of the program are that we're in the postseason, the expectations of the program are that we want to win in the postseason. We got back to the postseason last year and we got back to winning in the postseason."

Still, their final postseason appearance was a loss, and they have not forgotten that.



Vanderbilt Athletic Department
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