Oct. 21, 2005
BERKELEY, Calif. - There is an exciting buzz in Berkeley surrounding the 2005-06 California women's basketball team.
It's understandable that there is a heightened interest in the Golden Bear program with the addition of first-year head coach Joanne Boyle, a top seven recruiting class and the return of some talented players.
Prior to her arrival at Cal, Boyle directed Richmond to three consecutive 20-plus win seasons and three postseason berths. In 2005, the Spiders enjoyed their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 14 seasons.
Boyle first learned what it takes to transform a team into a national powerhouse during her nine seasons (1993-02) as an assistant coach Duke, her alma mater. The season before Boyle's arrival, Duke finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference. With her on staff, the Blue Devils tallied at least 22 wins seven times and advanced to eight straight NCAA Tournaments, including to the 1999 Final Four and the 2002 National Championship Game.
Cal posted an 11-18 record in 2004-05 and finished eighth in the Pac-10 with a 4-14 record. Boyle's background indicate that she knows what it's going to take for Cal to achieve the same level of success or higher than her Duke and Richmond teams.
"One of my goals this year is getting the team to understand how to win," Boyle said. "Our goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament, but a lot goes into that. I'm at the point where I need them to understand that we need to win the first five minutes of each half and the last five minutes of each half before we can even start thinking about getting to the tournament."
Forward/center Devanei Hampton and guard Alexis Gray-Lawson, 2005 McDonald's All-American selections from Oakland Tech, lead a group of five local newcomers to Cal this year. The Bears also feature forward Ashley Walker (Modesto, Calif.), who was ranked in the top 50 nationally by Mike White's All-Star Girls Report, and guard Jené Morris (San Francisco) and forward Shantrell Sneed (Fairfield).
"The community is looking for the freshmen to come in and take this program to another level," Boyle said. "I'm excited about that. My biggest challenge is going to be taking a very talented young group and meshing them with an older group of kids who are established. The younger kids are very talented and will make a big impact. But, they are freshmen. I want people to understand that I will put as much on their plate as they are capable of handling."
Cal can count on its six letterwinners, including two returning starters, for leadership. Reneé Wright, the team's only senior, is a captain along with redshirt junior point guard Sarah Pool and sophomore Krista Foster. Sophomore center Jessica Lawson, a Pac-10 All-Freshman selection, finished second on the team in scoring (10.6 ppg) and led the Bears in rebounding (5.0 rpg) last season. Pool and Lawson are Cal's only returning starters.
Cal finished last season averaging 65.7 ppg, which was the Bears' best offensive showing since the 1995-96 team averaged 71.8 ppg. Boyle strives to generate points from a variety of areas.
"I want a chunk of points to be from easy baskets in transition," said Boyle's, whose 2004-05 Richmond team ranked third in the Atlantic 10 in scoring (65.4 ppg) and fourth in scoring defense (58.4). "I want some of our points to be created off of our defense. Some will be from blue-collar putbacks. The rest will come in the quarter court offense."
Cal loses a large chunk of last season's offense with the loss of last year's five seniors. Leigh Gregory and Kristin Iwanaga earned All-Pac-10 honorable mention after finishing first (11.2 ppg) and third (10.3 ppg), respectively, on the team in scoring. Gregory ranks 11th in school history in scoring with 1,136 points, and Iwanaga is the Pac-10's career free throw leader at 89.0 percent.
Behind Iwanaga's NCAA-leading 93.4 free throw percentage, Cal converted a school-record 74.5 percent of its free throws last season. The Bears shot 36.3 percent from three-point range, which was the third-best mark in school history. Iwanaga led the way with a Pac-10-best 52.4 percent.
Boyle is confident that she and her staff are capable of helping Cal live up to the increased expectations.
"My staff and I know how to build a winning program, but the players have to buy into everything, not just the easy things, not just the fun things," Boyle said. "They have to buy into the hard things. Some of those are just the discipline and the rules we're going to set, the accountability and the consequences when you don't. I feel like they've embraced that. My biggest thing is that I want them to trust that I know what I'm doing. If they do that, then they'll run through a brick wall for me, and I'll run through a brick wall for them."
Sarah Pool started all 29 games at point guard for Cal last season. Pool, a product of Central Point, Ore., averaged 4.1 points per game last year and led the Bears and ranked fourth in the Pac-10 in assists at 4.2 per contest. She dished off 121 assists, becoming the first Cal player to record at least 100 assists in a season since Sherrise Smith also had 121 in 1998-99.
Alexis Gray-Lawson will provide tough competition for Pool at point guard after helping Oakland Tech to its second straight state title in 2005. Gray-Lawson was tabbed second team Parade All-America and posted 12 points, three assists and three steals in the 2005 McDonald's All-America Game. She was picked No. 17 nationally by Blue Star Index and No. 25 by Mike White's All-Star Girls Report.
"Sarah and Lexi are very different point guards, but they complement each other very well" Boyle said. "Sarah excels at pushing the ball up the court in transition and has gotten herself into great shape in the offseason. Lexi brings athleticism and physicality to the game. She finishes her shots strong because of her great strength. Lexi has amazing ballhandling skills."
Kelly O'Connell will challenge for playing time at the point if she has fully recovered from a torn tendon in her foot, which kept her sidelined all of 2004-05. O'Connell has shown her resiliency in the past, playing with a broken foot for the final six weeks of her senior season at Mullen High School in Lakewood, Colo. That, she averaged 14.2 points, 7.1 assists and 4.3 steals per game to help her school to a runner-up finish at the state tournament.
Keanna Levy and Jené Morris are capable of handling shooting guard duties for the Bears. Levy, who is looked to as a defensive stopper, contributed a career-high 10 points vs. USC at home as a sophomore. Levy came to Cal after receiving the 2003 Gatorade Iowa Player of the Year honor.
Morris is arguably the fastest player on this year's Cal team. She excels at driving to the basket and shooting from the outside, and her long arms help her create havoc defensively. The San Francisco product was named the 2004 and 2005 San Francisco Chronicle Regional Player of the Year and was picked No. 7 by the NorCal Scouting Report, which ranks players in Northern California.
"Jené has a lot of weapons in her game," Boyle said. "She needs to get stronger so that she can finish her shots with contact. I'm impressed with her abilities having not seen her play before this fall."
Senior Reneé Wright is the most experienced of the group, having played 79 games in a Cal uniform. Last season, Wright averaged 7.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game while starting nine of the Bears' 29 games. She also converted a career-high 18 three pointers as a junior, helping her earn the team's Co-Most Improved Player Award.
"Reneé has stepped up since I've come on board and has emerged as one of our leaders," Boyle said. "She has taken on the role of bringing the upperclassmen along to unify us as much as possible as a team. Reneé is in the best shape she has been in since coming to Cal. She's leaned out, gotten stronger and improved her mobility."
Krista Foster is prepared to step up her contributions after a solid rookie campaign. Foster was chosen as Cal's 2004-05 Best Defensive Player and posted 4.5 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. Against USC Feb. 20, she led the Bears with a career-high 13 points.
"Krista is doing a great job in all areas for us," Boyle said. "She's our best communicator on the court. I can play her outside and in. She'll play whatever role she needs to play for us to be successful. She's not selfish."
Rookies Shantrell Sneed and Ashley Walker provide immediate help to Cal at the forward spots. Sneed, who is coming off a shoulder injury, twice landed on the adidas All-America team during her stellar four-year career at St. Mary's High School in Berkeley. Sneed, the first member of Cal's nationally-regarded freshmen class to verbal to the Bears, was tabbed to the 2005 Cal-Hi Sports all-state squad. She played mainly in the post in high school but is expected to transition to the small forward spot at Cal.
Walker, a blue-collar worker and dominant rebounder, was rated No. 48 nationally by Mike White's All-Star Girls Report. Walker was listed on the Cal-Hi Sports all-state team and won league MVP honors after averaging 21 points, 20 rebounds, five assists and six blocks per game as a senior at Grace Davis High School.
"Ashley is a talented low-block player," Boyle said. "She's going to out work you and out muscle you. She takes control of the glass."
Jessica Lawson is back after a stellar freshman season as Cal's starting center. A native of Edgewood, Fla., Lawson tied for team-high honors with 17 double-figure scoring games. At 49.8 percent, she ranked fifth in the Pac-10 in field goal percentage and led all freshmen in that category.
The 6-3 Lawson needs to continue to work on her fitness and stay out of foul trouble this season as she averaged 10.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per game (led Cal) in only 16.7 minutes per game.
"Jessica has made huge strides since last year," Boyle said. "She's a step closer to reaching her potential. She's gotten herself into great shape. We need her to focus on finishing her shots around the basket. That was a criticism last year. We want her to demand the ball this year. I want to have a serious post game.
Devanei Hampton, who can also play power forward, may be the top freshman in the Pac-10 this season. Hampton teamed with Gray-Lawson to lead Oakland Tech to two state titles. For her efforts, Hampton garnered an assortment of All-America accolades from McDonald's, Parade (second team) and the WBCA. She is ranked among the top 15 players nationally among last year's high school seniors - No. 10 by Blue Star Index and No. 15 by Mike White's All-Star Girls Report. In 2004, Hampton and Gray-Lawson were two of the 48 players invited to the USA Youth Development Festival.
"I don't know if Devanei realizes how talented she is," Boyle said. "In my coaching career, she is one of the most skilled post I've ever coached. She's physical and does equally well from both sides of the block and is just as dominant facing the basket as anyone in the country. Her potential is unbelievable."
Emmelie Geraedts understands the game very well and is finesse but fundamental beyond words, according to Boyle. Geraedts, from Weert, The Netherlands, averaged 2.8 points and 1.1 rebounds per game, while hitting a team-high 53.1 percent from the floor last season.
Cal tips off the season at home at Haas Pavilion with an exhibition game against the Bay Area Pro Am on Nov. 2. The Bears open the regular season Nov. 9 - its earliest start in school history - with a home game against Eastern Washington in the opening round of the preseason WNIT. The winner advances to play the winner of Oral Roberts versus New Mexico Nov. 13.
The field includes six 2005 NCAA Tournament teams - Boston College, Connecticut, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oral Roberts and Richmond - and three 2005 Postseason WNIT squads - Southern Methodist, Chattanooga and Indiana State.
"The schedule we have right now will allow us to develop chemistry, get a feel for things and allow us to play a lot of different people early on," Boyle said. "My hope is that by the time the conference season starts, we have the confidence to make an impact on the Pac-10."
The Bears entertain Radford Nov. 18 and UC Davis Nov. 22 before traveling to the Caribbean Classic Nov. 24-27 in Cancun, Mexico. The tournament features defending NCAA champion Baylor, 2005 NCAA participants North Carolina, TCU and Arizona State and Mississippi State (2005 WNIT) and Marshall. Cal meets Baylor Nov. 24 on Thanksgiving day and Marshall Nov. 26.
After Cal's Thanksgiving trip to Mexico, the Bears return to Berkeley for the second-annual Contra Costa Times Classic. The event includes UNLV (2005 WNIT), Columbia and Albany. Cal wraps up the non-conference schedule Dec. 8 at San Jose State and Dec. 10 at home versus South Carolina State.
The Bears open Pac-10 play at Washington Dec. 20 and at Washington State Dec. 22. Cal closes out 2005 as host to UCLA Dec. 30 and rings in 2006 against USC Jan. 1. The regular season wraps up Feb. 25 against Wshington in Berkeley.
Stanford, USC, Oregon, Arizona and Arizona State represented the Pac-10 at the 2005 NCAA Tournament. The fifth-annual Pac-10 Tournament will be staged March 3-6 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.
"For me, the goal is when I put a team on the floor, for 40 minutes, no matter who we are playing, we must play at Cal basketball level. It's not about who you are playing," Boyle said. "I want fans to love watching my team because they work hard all of the time and lay it out on the floor. They're fun to watch. That is what I want my team to represent. It's a visual for the fans. If my team works hard, plays smart and develops good chemistry, the wins will take care of themselves."