Women's Hoops: Practice opens

The changes in the Vanderbilt women's basketball team were immediately obvious to any reporter who walked into the gym 15 minutes before the scheduled end of the first team practice of the season.

It was quiet. No sounds of squeaking sneakers or bouncing balls, no players running up and day the court. Instead, they were already in the post-practice circle, stretching and talking and laughing quietly with each other as new trainer Michelle Loftis worked her way around the circle tending to her charges.

"In three years, this is the first practice that I've had that we got everything done that we had in the practice plan and actually were ahead of schedule," said Head Coach Melanie Balcomb after practice.

There's a good reason why today's practice was completed in record time. In Balcomb's first season two years ago, the team had to adjust to a new coach, a new system, and a new style of play. Last year, there were six freshmen to incorporate into the team, including a freshman point guard. The result was often that practice ran longer than expected, or else the practice plan remained unfinished.

This year those freshmen have had a year to adjust to college life, to get experience in Balcomb's system, and to develop their individual skills, strength and conditioning over the summer. And the upperclassmen have had two years to learn the system and to understand what's expected of them.

"With the base and the knowledge and the leadership, the players are more comfortable and know what we expect," Balcomb said, "and it makes it easier for them to be ready for today, and I thought that they were really ready.

"As a coach I've always believed that the biggest change you see in maturity and development - physical, mental, just everything - is when you have a freshman go to a sophomore and of course we have six of them.

"So we'll be stronger physically and be stronger mentally. I think we'll be mentally tougher than we were last year. I think we'll be calmer. I think we'll be more confident. I've seen all those things in practice the first day."

But there still are issues to be addressed. With the graduation of guard Hillary Hager and post Jenni Benningfield, the team lost two of their top three scorers. Benningfield's stress fracture in January turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it allowed freshman post Carla Thomas to get valuable experience highlighted by her selection as MVP of the SEC Tournament.
But Hager, on the other hand, averaged over 35 minutes a game throughout the season. Because she did so many of the little things that count when she was on the court, she made herself indispensable. "I couldn't take her out," said Balcomb, "and people didn't get as much playing time as I had hoped.

So who's going to take over Hager's spot on the court? "This is the first day. I don't know who's going to take Jenni's spot or Hillary's spot but in due time we'll figure that out," Balcomb said. "But after one practice, you certainly don't know because even when you decide who you start, then you've got to see how kids then perform in a game. That will take time.

"It's going to be interesting to see. I think it needs to be more than one person. It needs to be all the guards stepping up and being able to contribute more."

Commodore fans will get their first chance to see the 2004-05 team on Sunday October 24 when the annual Black and Gold Scrimmage will take place from 12-1 p.m. in Memorial Gym. The scrimmage is open to the public.

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