Interview: Melanie Balcomb, part II

At SEC Media Days, Coach Melanie Balcomb talked with VandyMania about the upcoming season. In the first part, she talked about the freshman. In the second part of the interview, she talks about the returning players on the team and shares some thoughts on the season.

VandyMania: We've talked about the freshman. What about the rest of the team? Amy Malo?

Coach Balcomb: I think Amy Malo is a big player. She's going to be a presence. She's strong, but has had a tough time physically going through two surgeries last year during her freshman year and is just getting into practice, into the flow, getting in shape, learning how to push through. I think this will be an important year for her to gain some confidence and learn a lot, especially from Carla and Liz.

VM: Tina Wirth?

Coach Balcomb: If there's anybody outside of the three seniors that has been the most impressive, it's been Tina Wirth. She may have to play 40 minutes because she's the most versatile kid. She plays every position but point guard. She looks extremely good, especially as a 4 and will really spread the defense out with her 3-point range and be very similar to what Jenni Benningfield was for us, inside and out. She's worked really hard in the off-season on her strength and conditioning. She's much mentally tougher and took everything to heart that we talked about improving, those things as a team and individually in the off-season, and we're just really proud of the changes she's made, and it shows every day in practice in her confidence.

VM: Jen Risper?

Coach Balcomb: Jen Risper goes along with Amber Norton. Amber and Jen Risper are a lot alike -- extremely athletic, so fast that they need to slow down. Jen took our practices to a whole new level last year. Jen has a great personality and she, as well as Amber, got voted "Most talkative". Jen Risper's in that category, and so you become energized by that kind of enthusiasm. Jen's not afraid of work; she's mentally tough. What Jen has to do now is instead of just going out and working hard, she now has to execute. Last year we needed her competitiveness, all that that she brought to us, and we wouldn't have won the games we won down the stretch if it wasn't for Jen Risper. We started to take on Jen Risper's personality, which is a good one. If there's anybody you'd want, you'd want her because her attitude is so good. But she's now got to get the mental piece, and she's got to learn the system and learn how to use all that that she has been given that you can't coach within our system. And that's what she's doing this year. She's starting to slow down and realize why she's doing things and making better decisions.

VM: How about your upper classmen?

Coach Balcomb: Dee Davis. Obviously she's one of the premier point guards in the country and is a great assist leader, but I think she's shown more leadership as a team leader. I think she knows what it takes and became a playmaker last year. That's one thing that we haven't had a lot of, and when it came to big games, Dee was ready to make plays. I think we'll see that just increase her confidence in being able to make those big plays.

VM: Is she back to 100%?

Coach Balcomb: No, she's still coming off her third off-season knee surgery on the same knee. She's still limited in her practice play, so the key is going to be keeping her healthy, as much time as we can keep her off will keep her strong down the stretch as the SEC starts.

VM: Carla Thomas?

Coach Balcomb: Carla Thomas. Right now, I couldn't ask for more from Carla Thomas. She's amazing at practice. She's playing better than I've ever seen her. She's so confident and working so hard. Amber Norton is so cute to watch look up to her and follow her. Carla's just turned into a great program player, and she's like a coach on the floor. Everybody listens to Carla because of the respect factor. She's earned a lot of respect from her teammates, but I think you're going to see something special from Carla her senior year. We've seen a lot of things from her in practice that we haven't seen before that we saw in games, but now she's a lot more consistent practice player ,which is going to give her a lot more confidence and to be more consistent and to play better earlier. She's always peaked later in the season, and I think she's going to be ready to go from the start this year.

VM: Caroline Williams?

Coach Balcomb: We've been talking about Caroline an awful lot here today. Everybody knows the Caroline story because it's such a good one. And she's earned it. I could talk about Caroline for hours, but the big thing is her work ethic and her character. Her attitude has made her. She's a self-made player and that doesn't come around often. She's a special kid. I was looking at her on the plane flying here thinking, "I can't believe this is her senior year." It's gone so fast and next year she won't be on this plane and won't be here, and you want to make the most of the time you have because you want her to just rub off on everybody else.

VM: Liz Sherwood?

Coach Balcomb: Liz Sherwood has worked a lot more, a lot harder, in the off-season. Liz needed a year under her belt last year to be shown what she needed to work on. I think she was willing, again, like Tina did, to take to heart the things she needed to work on and worked on her weaknesses in the off-season. I think that's what's going to make a difference in Liz. We've seen Liz work harder on her weaknesses instead of just going to her strengths. People are so keyed on Liz. They know that she's a talented, highly recruited, 6-5 center, so they take away her strengths, and she's got to work more on her weaknesses. She did that in the off-season, and I think she's going to be a lot tougher to guard this year.

VM: Could you also compare this year's team -- this group of seniors, this group of freshman -- with the 2003-04 team that won the SEC tournament?

Coach Balcomb: I think there are so many comparisons there, and we find ourselves excited because of those comparisons. It'd be great if the outcome is the same, but I think we were over-achievers that year with that great leadership with Jenni and Hillary. They were unselfish, program players and we have that in the three seniors, and they're passing that on to the young players that we're adding with talent. Then we have Liz and Tina and Jen in between that glue the two together. They can make big plays, and they're playmakers like Abi Ramsey and Ashley Earley. There's just so much in common there that I think that it almost gives your team some confidence and something to look forward to in that they think this really could be a special year.

VM: This is the first year everybody in your program has been recruited by you.

Coach Balcomb: That's why you get a 5-year contract. The fifth year is all your players that you recruited for your philosophy and for your system and your staff. That's important, especially when you're asked to be so unselfish and to put your team ahead and have good team chemistry on and off the floor, which is so important to us. It's important to us to be the best team, not the best talent, because of our academics. So I think they realize why they're here. They all have similar goals. They all have similar values off the court, and they're all reaching for the same thing because that's what they were sold on to come here. That's one reason why we even take their input when it comes to recruiting, how well they got along with each other -- team chemistry is so important.

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