A whole new era for Commodore women's team

Commodore seniors Hillary Hager and Jenni Benningfield talked with VandyMania Wednesday about the changing face of Vanderbilt basketball, the team's highly touted freshman class, and the players' expectations for the upcoming season. (Part II of a series of reports from SEC Basketball Media Day 2003.)

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Q: Losing two players like Chantelle Anderson and Ashley McElhiney, who were not only fantastic players, but such good people, whom I know you were both so close to... doesn't that leave a big hole in your hearts as well as your team?

Hillary Hager: Yes, it does initially leave a big hole because we loved Ashley and Chantelle. Like you said, it leaves a big hole in our hearts. They were great people and great teammates, and we're going to miss them a lot. It does leave a hole in our team, but at the same time we have freshmen coming in to replace them. I guess I wouldn't describe it as a hole because we have a lot of new people coming in, and we're just a completely different team. Our team just takes on a whole new face, I guess you could say. So it doesn't really leave a hole, but the new people coming in just kind of rename our team.

Jenni Benningfield: I think playing with two people like them for three years straight, we kind of got accustomed to seeing them every day and working with them and really expecting them to be there. It was a little different for us this summer when they weren't at pickup, they weren't lifting with us and they weren't conditioning with us. But we're used to it now, and like Hill said, we're a completely different team. We're going to miss them, but at the same time, we have seven freshmen coming in to take some spots. It's going to be different in that we're not going to have those two people that... we put a lot of dependence on, I guess you'd want to say? Maybe. I guess so. But now, all of us are expected to be ready to play every night. So I think everybody can contribute to different aspects of the game. Our freshmen... each one of them brings in something different and that's what is pushing every one of us upperclassmen to get better. It's going to be a little bit different, but I think everybody is excited to see what we can do as a team. With that many people and that kind of depth, we're going to have a lot more options to do stuff.

Q: The seven freshmen, we've read a lot about them... it looks like an incredible class that just kind of changes the face of the team, like you said. Fans are going to want to know, OK, in practice so far have any of them come in and you just say "Wow"? Who has really opened up people's eyelids so far in practice?

Hillary: In their own way, I think they all have. They all definitely have unique aspects they add to the team that we didn't have before. I think they all could-- WILL-- contribute to the team this year. And each one of them has, as you said, opened up people's eyelids at different points in time and has contributed a lot already.

Q: The point guards-- with Ashley gone, you're going to have a hole there. You've got Dee Davis, a McDonald's All-American coming in there...

Hillary: Well, I think Dee Davis is our true point guard on the team out of the freshmen. We have Katie Antony who plays the 1 and the 2, and also Cherish Stringfield, who also plays the 1 and the 2. And Erica Grimaldi's gotten a ton better. She's improved so much, and I think she will definitely be an important part of the team, too. She's not a freshman, obviously, but at the point guard spot she'll definitely contribute.

Jenni: Erica has got a year under her belt. She's learned the offense right along with us. She's only a sophomore, but really all of us are sophomores in Coach's system. So we don't have a complete hole in the point guard spot. Erica may not have gotten as much playing time as Ashley Mac, but I think she has kind of been helping the other point guards who are freshmen to understand the little things that coach wants and expects, and I think she's really helping them. She's gotten a lot better and she's helped the freshman get a lot better.

Q: Then you've got someone like Carla Thomas, who-- she's not as tall as Chantelle but might have some of the same characteristics.

Jenni: She's definitely is not Chantelle in her size, but she definitely is really athletic, and can jump--

Hillary: And run---

Jenni: And rebound extremely well, and that's exciting to see. She's gaining more and more confidence every day. She hasn't shown any fear of playing, and that's good, being a freshman, along with other freshmen posts that are working. Each one of them is getting better. The best thing I guess out of all them at any position is that they all have a positive attitude and they're really trying to be coachable, which is the most important thing at this point. There's a lot of teaching going on right now, so it's a matter of everybody being coachable. The more quickly we get through stuff and learn it, the better.

Hillary: I just want to say, too, we've talked a lot about the freshmen; I know today everybody's been asking us about that, but we also have some upperclassmen coming back-- like Ashley Earley, Abi Ramsey, Nicole Jules-- who have gotten a ton better just from last year over the summer to this year. It's exciting to me to see that. It isn't just the freshmen.

Q: The media is going to vote later today on order of finish. Where would you two pick yourselves if you were the media and had to place yourselves?

Hillary: Oh, goodness!

Jenni: To start the season?

Q: Yes.

Jenni: To start the season I don't necessarily want to say we'll be at the top. I think we have a lot of learning to do. But I definitely do not think we'll be at the bottom at all. I've told other people this-- not even talking about the freshmen, but the eight upperclassmen that we have have gotten so much better. People think we're going to be down, just because we have a high number of freshmen. But that's not the case. We're going to surprise a lot of people. So I would put us in the middle, probably the top of the middle section, and I really think throughout the season we're going to move ourselves up, step by step. I definitely think we can be close to the top within the near future. I'm really excited the way it's going right now, and the way it's going to be going the next few years in Vanderbilt basketball. People should be excited about it.


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