Vandy friends in pro game against each other

Thursday's preseason game between the Chicago Sky and Indiana Fever featured free tickets to fans in Indy and early looks at Fever favs Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas and Tully Bevilaqua. With the absence of the Sky's Sylvia Fowles and a seasoned starting five, the Fever triumphed 74-67 and 6,500 vocal fans witnessed a fast-paced, sometimes rough and tumble victory.

But the real treat behind the scenes was a first ever match-up on opposing teams between Vanderbilt standouts and forever friends Jennifer Risper and Christina Wirth. In the span of 4 minutes, 47 seconds, the two were on the same court in different uniforms, and at one time, going against each other one on one.

Tina recalls, "As soon as I saw her come out I went ‘oh no.' I tried to take a charge on her and fouled her one time. I just was hoping we wouldn't have to guard each other and then we kind of did at first. I had been guarding post, and then when she

Jen Risper of the Chicago Sky drives towards the Indiana Fever's Tina Wirth.
(Photo by Whitney D.)
came in, I had switched to guard. I was thinking there are two other guards so pick some one else! It worked out like that for the most part. I didn't want to guard her and didn't want her to guard me!"

Jen, who provided coaches with a solid 8:34 minutes with 5 rebounds, 1 steal and 3 free throws, had razor focus on the task at hand.

"I had fun and I was out there with Tina a little bit. I wanted to go out there and give my best and I feel like I succeeded. I just laid it all down, a 110 percent which is what I try to do each time. I wasn't really thinking about Tina. I was thinking about traps and what I was supposed to do on my end. I'm used to setting screens for her and one time I thought, ‘should I set a screen?," she says joking. "Of course I wish her well. She's my best friend and I want her to feel happy about her game, too."

An inevitable part of the fallout from the WNBA's cut to 11 players per roster and the Houston Comets folding in 2008 is an even more intense training camp for draftees. Both rookies are keenly aware that evaluations are made daily and each minute of playing time is crucial. Learning new systems with new coaches and new teammates – and learning quickly – adds pressure on a whole new level.

"It's just so different," Tina explains. "Nothing about the last four years really exists so we're starting over in a way and learning what coaches want from you and how to help the team the best way you can. So it's been a learning process and I

Indiana Fever players Erica White (L) and Christina Wirth (R) talk during their game with the Chicago Sky.
(Photo by Whitney D.)
can't say today that you're going to see the finished process. It's still in the works. God brought me here for a reason and I'm not sure if it's for the whole season or for just this game. While I'm here I just try to be a great teammate, and even for a minute, to give it all. I want to bring everything I can and lift this team up."

Jen looks at the opportunity to play in the WNBA as part of God's will for her. "I'm not concerned. You want to win, like in a college game, but at this point, you know only a little bit. It's more about getting to know your teammates out on the floor in a game atmosphere. This isn't a solid 11-roster team yet. There are still girls you may play with or not play with."

Both women were delighted to see familiar faces in the audience. Coach Melanie Balcomb and assistants Lisa Cermignano and Kim Rosamond drove up for support. Like a beaming parent in the stands, Coach Balcomb states, "We're just really proud of them and we want to show them support and care for the rest of their lives, not just when they're at Vanderbilt. It's important for them to know that once they become a part of our family, they're always a part of our family. When they're done helping us, our goal is to help them. It's really for us, for me, an honor and a privilege."

The countless hours of practice, drills and conditioning at Vanderbilt prepared Jen and Tina in ways that the average fan would not notice but will help advance their playing careers. They won't show up on a stat sheet or box score, but both attribute Coach Balcomb and her staff's attention to the smallest details for helping them get where they are today.

"It's doing the dirty work that nobody looks at or claps for but those are the things that regardless of our role, we can bring to our teams," Tina said. "Coach Balcomb's entire theme last year was, ‘Be a great teammate.' So regardless of your role on the team, whether you're the go-to player or the last person off the bench, it's something you can always bring."

For whatever the future brings, the friends are grateful for the opportunities and look forward to playing overseas together at some point. But fans can be certain of this – wherever they go they'll play hard and they'll play with heart. They're Vanderbilt family first.

Transitions from college to pros, writer to writer

A wave of nostalgia hit when Jen Risper took the floor for practice shots in a blue and yellow Chicago Sky uniform on Indianapolis hardwood. Gone was the familiar black and gold the Vanderbilt grad wore during four Memorial seasons.

Joining her a few minutes later, Tina Wirth appeared in Indiana Fever warm-ups. Hugs were exchanged and small talk shared between the BFFs and former roommates, and just like that, transition appeared easy to swallow.

VandyMania is also making a transition. For a decade Whitney D has covered women's basketball for this site. She is passing the torch to Sharon Harper and will be an occasional contributor. Sharon, who wrote VandyMania SEC game wrap-ups and features in early 2008, is a former Nashville Banner reporter who covered Vanderbilt's 1993 Final Four season. She is a member of the Hoops Crew who has been a follower of the ‘Dores since 1990, not long after she moved to Tennessee from her native north Louisiana.

Sharon gets the ball rolling with this first feature: a snapshot of the transition to pro basketball for a pair of WNBA rookies beloved and familiar to Vanderbilt fans.

Sharon Harper (L) with Jen Risper (R). (VM/Whitney D.)

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