Ladner comfortable coaching in top seat again

The Ole Miss women's basketball program was on public display Sunday night for the first time since a dramatic run in last year's NCAA Tournament, which ended with a loss to eventual national champion Tennessee in Dayton, Ohio.

That was back when the Lady Rebels had their maddest March since last making the Elite Eight in 1992.

Eight months ago when Ole Miss got past TCU, Maryland, and Oklahoma before facing the Lady Vols, Carol Ross was the head coach. Just days after Dayton, Ross stepped aside after four years and passed the coaching baton to Renee Ladner.

Since then Ladner has done all the things a head coach does – speaking to alums, organizing her program, recruiting more kids for the future, delegating to those who are in the shoes she wore the past four years here as an assistant coach.

On Sunday night, rather than sitting next to the head coach, Ladner didn't sit at all. Instead she stood at times and squatted at times. She moved up and down in front of the bench, barked directions to her young and in some respects inexperienced players, often looking pleased but other times visibly disappointed with this or that play, this or that player.

It was the 99-00 season when she led St. John High in Gulfport to the Class 2A state title and was named Coach of the Year by the Mississippi High School Activities Association.

Since Katrina, St. John merged with Mercy Cross High of Biloxi to form St. Patrick High.

Since March, Ladner has learned what it's like to be a head coach again. On Sunday night after her team's 83-56 exhibition victory over a traveling group called DT3, the former Lady Rebel player said things felt quite natural out there.

"It's a funny thing. I really didn't feel a lot different," she said, evaluating her first game as the top Lady Reb.

"The main difference was when I stood up, they didn't tell me to sit down," she said, smiling.

Head coaches don't get told to do that very often, unless they are in the refs' faces or ears, which Ladner never was in this one. She likely saved that for games against Tennessee or LSU or any of the other toughies the regular season will offer up, from N.C. State in Oxford on Dec. 21 to road games at Ohio State and Penn State before that.

It may also have helped not only this night but also since March that Ross' other assistants, Peggie Gillom-Granderson and Jocelyn McGilberry, remained on staff, joined this summer by new assistant coach Marlene Stollings.

After working with Ross as an assistant at Florida and at Ole Miss since her high school coaching days, Ladner said the transition from assistant back to head coach wasn't that difficult as far as the game experience itself was concerned.

"Carol and I were so connected that I would sweat every game with her," Ladner said. "I was not extremely nervous tonight. I know there will be bigger games that I will probably suffer more in or look more forward to. But I just didn't feel a lot different. I don't know if that's bizarre or not."

She'll get to find out rather quickly. They do it all over again Thursday at 7 p.m. when they host a team called OBGR Legends in another exhibition game.

Then on Sunday at 2 p.m., they'll tip it up for real in Lincoln, Neb., as the Lady Rebels play the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the regular season opener.

"I feel very happy to have this first one behind us," she said Sunday night with a bit of a sigh of relief.

So with exhibition test number one in the record books – for both team and head coach – they move on from here, knowing greater challenges are ahead, hoping to experience more of that madness come next March.

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