You gotta have heart......why not make it a Heart
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
"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
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
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.