Women Cagers Start Practice with Confidence

Ohio State women's basketball fans waiting for the national breakthrough that has eluded the program through the past five years of Big Ten domination, Jantel Lavender has good news for you on the team's annual picture day.

Jantel Lavender did not mince words.

"I think we can compete with any team in the country with what we have," Ohio State's junior All-American center said Thursday on the team's annual picture day. "I think there's no team that is better than us. If we don't allow a team to be better than us, and we come with all the talent and weapons we have, then we should have no problems. We should compete at the highest level, and I think we can be the best if everyone comes and realize what their role is on the team. I think that's a major part of teams not being as good as they can be because people don't want to accept roles."

Lavender's role the past two seasons has been easy to identify as she has led the team in scoring and rebounding. She was named co-Big Ten player of the year as a freshman and took sole possession of the award last season.

Now she has her sights set higher with the Buckeyes returning four players who started at least 19 games last season when Ohio State put aside three years' worth of postseason disappointments and advance to the regional final.

They lost there to No. 2 Stanford, but the consensus among the Buckeyes on picture day was the overall experience will have a positive lasting effect.

Among the believers is Samantha Prahalis, the point guard whose arrival last year had much to do with the Buckeyes' improvement.

"The last two years in the first round they (lost), but I think this year knowing that we've had success, people just want to be more successful than last year," said Prahalis, the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year.

A skeptic could easily dismiss Lavender's proclamation as typical opening-day optimism, but there is reason to believe she knows what some of the nation's best are all about.

As part of USA Basketball, she has spent the last few summers playing with the best players of her age from around the country, including many players who populate the best teams in college basketball.

"I think Stanford and Connecticut have good players, and they have a system that they run on, and I think they are good teams, don't get me wrong, but they are beatable," Lavender said. "As long as you come in and you stick with your game plan and you are able to make changes in a game, then you are able to win those games. I've played with girls on those teams since I've been in ninth grade, so..."

Two preseason publications indicate people around the country took notice of what Lavender and Prahalis were able to do as a pair last year, too. Both Athlon and Lindy's rate the Buckeyes third in the nation in their preseason publications, a fact that the Buckeyes don't mind.

"It's good to be noticed, but then again, it's nothing if we don't live up to it," Prahalis said. "I think we've just got to win and keep working hard."

If they are to live up to the lofty expectations, there are roles that must be filled.

Preseason practice will be spent looking for a replacement for power forward Star Allen, a second-team All-Big Ten performer who was often the hub of the halfcourt offense in the high post, and guard Ashlee Trebilcock, a talented shooter who started 22 games last season but was slowed at times by a troublesome knee.

Head coach Jim Foster has any number of options to replace that pair. Upperclassmen Shavelle LIttle and Brittany Johnson would seem to be the top candidates to fill out the backcourt alongside Prahalis, but freshman Tayler Hill could be a factor, too.

After breaking the all-time scoring record in Minnesota high school basketball history, Hill chose last spring to join her older brother, P.J., at Ohio State.

While acknowledging the influence of her brother, who is a senior on the men's basketball team, in her decision making, the younger Hill also said the chance to help put the Buckeyes over the top appealed to her.

"If that's the role Coach Foster needs me to play, then I'm ready for the challenge," she said. "I'm ready for him to tell me what I need to do and take on that role.

"I don't need to be a scorer like I was in high school. That's not what I came here to do, to shoot the ball. I came here to learn how to play as a team player and play with a great group of girls."

Another candidate from freshman class to crack the lineup is Emilee Harmon, a local product from Pickerington Central.

The 6-2 forward professed to have grown up following the Buckeyes, and she said she feels the program is on an upswing since Foster began recruiting her several years ago.

"Oh yeah, definitely," Harmon said. "When the recruiting process first started, of course Ohio State was always on my mind, but they weren't there yet, and I truly believe we're there now. Of course, we have a lot to work on, but as far as being one of the top schools in the nation, we're there."

Both freshmen were sure to point out they see a glut of competition for playing time.

For Hill, there are eight other guards on the roster, while junior forward Sarah Schulze figures to make a strong bid for Allen's spot.

Foster unsurprisingly did not see much meaning in the preseason acclaim.

"If you've got the right people in the gym, they have high expectations for themselves," he said. "Every year is a new start, and this is the best part of the job. Being in the gym with the players on a day-to-day basis is why you do this. No one ever entered this profession, at least in my frame of reference, to talk to the media or to sit in gyms for unlimited hours on hard benches. I think most people did it to do what we're about to start doing. This is the fun part of this job."

But Little, a senior who has been named the Big Ten defensive player of the year two seasons in a row, does think the success of last March could have a residual effect.

"I think last year we were talented, but at the end of the year it was all about having to instill confidence in everybody," she said. "I think this year that's (not the case). I think each year is getting stronger and stronger. I think our bond from last year is carrying on, and it will only get stronger. Confidence is a big thing when you're out there playing.

"I think there will be a carryover, and the bond will only get stronger and people's confidence will only build. I think we started over two years ago when Jantel came in."

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