Vandy motivated following Watkins' injury

Pre-season polls are history, All SEC selections noted, and in a matter of days, it will be up to Team Vanderbilt (No. 24) to pound the keys describing its' season after months of preparation. As senior co-captain Hannah Tuomi remarked with a no-nonsense approach, "It all depends on who shows up that day."

A week after the announcement that 6-4 freshman Clair Watkins is out for the season with a knee injury suffered while running the court, VandyMania caught up with power post Hannah Tuomi, named All-SEC Second Team by the league's coaches, and redshirt freshman Stephanie Holzer, the 6-4 center who is expected to make a significant impact during her first year of play.

Hannah found out she was named to the league coaches' preseason All-SEC Second Team during the interview. Fellow senior and point guard playmaker Jence Rhoads was selected All-SEC First team by the coaches and the media in a separate poll. Hannah said the loss of Clair to the team was upsetting, but having dealt with injuries in consecutive years, the squad knows what it has to do to potentially match what Clair was going to bring.

"We have to make up for what got taken away from us. We have to work harder, a little bit more than we did before. We're just looking to give more in what we all do. We have a handful of posts now so we're not in too bad a shape there. It's anybody's role to grab, really."

With 6-3 Rebecca Silinski and Tori Jarosz, along with 6-4 Stefanie Holzer, height remains on the positive side. However, Head Coach Melanie Balcomb said Clair was going to make a major impact. Her work ethic and skill set was "wowing" everyone.

"She had great, great perimeter skills to spread the defense, which we have missed since Tina Wirth was here," Coach Balcomb said. "She really fit the puzzle and was a piece that was missing, like Stephanie (Holzer) the year before. That was the piece we needed, and boom, she went down. When it happened again, we all kind of stopped breathing for a while. Now that other post players have stepped up and are playing very well, and we're really emphasizing the post game and getting the ball inside and having that in our offense again, I think we've gotten past it."

Although shorter than the previously mentioned trio, 6-1 Hannah and 6-0 Tiffany Clarke play well above their height, Coach Balcomb added.

"We have depth we've never had before; we have height we didn't have before. We have shot blocking ability and rebounding ability. I think potentially this could be the best rebounding team we've ever had. I am looking forward to a young team that just keeps getting better as far as they're working with their attitude and effort. We don't have that many upperclassmen or experience, but as we get it, I think it's going to be an exciting year."

For Stephanie Holzer, now in her second year at Vandy, but her first season following recovery from ankle injuries, excitement doesn't fully describe how she's feeling, which for the record, is beyond "ecstatic." For 34 games the McDonald's High School All American watched from the bench, at times cheering and encouraging, and certainly for the 11 losses, wishing she had been able to use her height and game acumen to spread the defense and maximize offense.

"It's been a long time coming because as an athlete, you put in so much time with your team, whether it's weights, study hall hours and just practice in general, so to really be able to be out there and feel like I'm getting the end result to all these means, it's going to be really cool, definitely," Stephanie said.

Three spots on the starting five are not yet finalized, Coach Balcomb said. As to who will join returning starters Hannah and Jence, it's anyone's guess and competition is bringing out the best. "Everybody has the potential to step up this year as far as what we're seeing in practice," Stephanie offered. "Jence and Hannah like always are just dominant, and I think we have a lot of other good people stepping up, but we'll just have to see what the season brings."

With experienced junior transfer Angela Puleo in the mix to assist Jence in the point position, the guards are set to compete as well. Freshmen Christina Foggie and Jasmine Lister join sophomores Elan Brown and Gabby Smith and any of these six can shoot lights out.

Vanderbilt, ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press pre-season poll, begins early action with a 7 p.m. exhibition this Thursday, November 4 against Delta State of the Gulf South Conference. The Division II Lady Statesmen from Cleveland, Mississippi are led by 6-2 junior Veronica Walker (20.8 points, 10.2 rebounds per game and 74 blocked shots last season).

Hannah Tuomi directs post players on moves to the basket.

Jasmine Lister works the ball as Stephanie Holzer moves in for a pass.

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