One announcer after another during Vanderbilt's post-season action repeated the observations like a broken record: "The Commodores are challenged in the post." "They're undersized." "No true post presence." With scrappy 5-foot-9 Jennifer Risper playing well above her height to back up injured 6' post Hannah Tuomi, the ‘Dores surprised naysayers with their sixth SEC championship and came within five points of upsetting favored Maryland in the Sweet 16, despite the perceived handicap.
This fall, all eyes will be on Stephanie Holzer, the 6-foot-4 McDonald's All-American from Philadelphia. She averaged 17.9 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.2 blocked shots during her senior year and was named Pennsylvania's Gatorade Player of the Year.
The tenacious center whose intelligent post play on both sides of the court has been documented by ESPN, committed to Vanderbilt early in her junior year, under the radar from some top programs due to recurring injuries.
"My injuries were a very big factor," she admits. "A lot of schools wanted to see me healthy before they would come after me." Programs like Duke and Maryland showed a lot of interest after she already committed to Vanderbilt, but Stephanie never doubted she had picked the right school.
"I came down for two days and I knew right away. It was one of those dream stories where I knew this was the place for me. The coaches and the girls on the team are just great. Everything else fell into place."
In addition to a scouting visit by assistant coach Vicky Picott and a home visit by head coach Melanie Balcomb, Vanderbilt can add team dynamics to its recruiting tools.
"Vanderbilt really had the faith in me and saw my potential," Stephanie said. "Honestly, listening to how the girls spoke about their teammates and the coaches was something really special. I come from an AAU team that is very close knit and just coming here and seeing how the girls are a support system to each other is really important to me. Being so far away from home you need that support system."
Never having seen a Vandy game live or on television, Stephanie researched the program like any fan would – online to scour the school's site for information, watch game highlights and player interviews. The recruiting process was also familiar because Vanderbilt had recruited Stephanie's older sister Katie, a junior this fall at the University of Richmond. "I watched her go through it and learned the steps. And just knowing Vanderbilt was a top academic and basketball school helped my decision."
As Stephanie continues to strengthen a wobbly ankle fractured in April during a state championship game, she realizes expectations may be high, but isn't taking on any undue pressure.
"Right now I don't expect anything. I am a freshman. I'm still hurt, I'm rehabbing. I haven't earned my place on this team yet. Whatever the coaches need me to do, wherever I fit in the team dynamic in my role is where I want to be. When I'm on the court, I don't feel the pressure – there's so much adrenaline. It doesn't matter if I start or if I'm on the bench. When I'm on the court I want to play well and do what the coaches want me to do."
The 18-year-old born in New York, who lived in Toronto, Houston and Philly, is resilient and persistent. Although she practiced with the team recently, the ankle pain returned and she's slowing down the pace to heal.
"I've sat on the sidelines a lot because I've been hurt but I know that waiting is the most important part. During this time I'm doing pool workouts. I do rehab everyday and I'm just trying to get stronger. If I'm not running I'll find other ways to keep my cardio up. It's so frustrating but I just have to be patient. I hate watching practice. I can't wait to be out there with them."
Excited for the season to begin, Stephanie is looking ahead to a quality year in Nashville.
"The team and I are putting forth our best effort right now. I think we're going to do great this year—I can't wait to see what comes up. As far as I go with my rehab now, I'm getting stronger, and hopefully I'll be good to go with no more issues."