Youth Movement

Ole Miss head women's basketball coach Renee Ladner enters her fourth season at the helm of her alma mater's program with some immediate challenges. Somehow she has to help five or more first-year players grow up. In a hurry.

A large and experienced senior class left the Lady Rebels after last season, which ended 17-15 and in the WNIT. Ladner has welcomed a talented but youthful group to join her limited number of veterans for the 2010-11 season.

"The challenges are for me as a coach to give us room to grow, not expect too much too soon, and still let them have fun," Ladner said. "This is a game. It should be fun. They compete against each other very hard each day. The thing I like about this team, if you'll look up, they're here an hour ahead of time shooting. Nobody told them to do that. They've done that on their own. They're hungry and competitors and winners."

One of the main points of focus will be at point guard, where Raymond High's Valencia McFarland enters the program as the likely candidate at the important position.

"She is the first true point guard we've had at Ole Miss (in this era)," Ladner said. "You have to have that point guard mentality. Some of the others we've had were more two guards. Valencia is a true point guard in its truest sense."

Ladner reels off the honors of her talented, freshman point, who said she always wanted to play for Ole Miss and was a key signee for the program. But the head coach also knows some limitations come with being a first-year player on the Division I level.

Ladner celebrates with Melson, Robertson

"Valencia has been (Mississippi) Gatorade Player of the Year twice," she said of the 5-foot-4 McFarland, whose hometown is listed as Edwards.

"She has won back to back state championships (Raymond High School). She won the overall state championship, and she has been a part of a national championship in a summer league with the Tennessee Flight. So when she played for the Flight, she played with people that were the equivalent of her on a national scale. Because she's had a lot of experiences, I think she is ahead of the game, so to speak."

In addition to McFarland, there are four other new scholarship players - Kenyotta Jenkins, a 5-10 guard/forward from Potts Camp High School; Shae Nelson, a 5-10 guard from Cordova, Tenn.; Pa'Sonna Hope, a 6-foot forward from Regina High School in Cleveland, Ohio; and Jasmain Trotter, a 6-4 forward from Marion, Ark. Ladner's experienced veterans are few in number.

Senior 5-8 two-guard Kayla Melson of Montgomery, Ala., and junior 6-4 center Nikki Byrd of Brookhaven bring the most to the court in terms of actual playing minutes. But when you look around, there isn't much more experience there.

Senior 6-4 forward Tori Slusher of Wichita Falls, Texas, is coming off back to back ACL surgeries on the same leg. Courtney Marbra is a 6-1 sophomore forward from Forest Hill High School in Jackson. LaTosha Laws is a 5-8 junior guard from Memphis, Tenn. Whitney Hameth is a 5-10 junior guard from Dumas, Ark., who is likely out for the season, however.

Rounding out the roster are 5-7 sophomore guard Maggie McFerrin of Tupelo, 5-8 sophomore guard Jasmine Curtis of Jackson Callaway, and 5-10 sophomore guard Kelsey Nutt of Fordyce, Ark.

Ladner has been pleased with the team in its preparation for the season, and she's happy with the way the newcomers have approached things.

"Their effort has been outstanding," Ladner said. "We're going to have to depend on these youngsters, and I really don't call them freshmen. We ended that when we started practice.

"I've been intense with them," she continued. "They needed to understand in a hurry what this is all about."

What it is all about are the rigors of Division I basketball and the wars of the Southeastern Conference.

"I don't get anything but all-out effort," Ladner said. "Everyone of them lists hustle as something they can bring every day. When all else fails, they will hustle. And I love that about this group."

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