Little height, little issue as ‘Dores prepare

With the earliest start ever for an exhibition, the defending SEC champion ‘Dores are cranking up the intensity for Friday's 7 p.m. match against the defending NAIA national champion Union University Bulldogs.

Vandy will play without 6'4" freshman Stephanie Holzer, sidelined indefinitely as she recovers from ankle surgery. But this is not the first time Vanderbilt has played without significant height.

As junior Jence Rhoads, a tall-ish 5'11" ball handler nonchalantly points out, "We played well without height last year so I think we can do it again. We'll figure out a way to win."

Head Coach Melanie Balcomb sees strengths in this year's squad while recognizing the loss of last season's best offensive and defensive players. Christina Wirth and Jennifer Risper, both drafted by the WNBA, are now playing professionally in Slovakia.

"It's going to be a really interesting year for us to see who steps up," Balcomb said, recalling that a preseason media poll pegged Vanderbilt fourth in the conference. "We have an interesting combination of four seniors but also four freshmen. With Steph Holzer now out for an undetermined amount of time, those remaining three freshmen are going to get their feet wet early and we'll see how they do."

Although ill and not participating in Tuesday's practice, freshman Tiffany Clarke is expected to provide some offensive spark and defensive pop from the start. "Tiff is really coming out strong. She's going to be a big force for us inside," Balcomb projects.

The 6'1" power forward, who professes to "like contact" and mixing it up in the post, can match Hannah Tuomi for rebounding muscle. Tiffany blocked a record 10 shots in a single Norcross High School game and finished her senior season with a double-double: 18 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocks per game.

Coach Balcomb sees a good season ahead as long as Hannah, Jordan Coleman and Tiffany stay healthy. "We are going to have a strong post game. We're going to have a very strong high-low this year. And that will be because our shooters will be able to spread the floor well. I'm encouraged, even though we thought the cavalry was coming with height this year, we'll have to wait a little longer. Our players saw the success we had last year without the height so it won't be such a big focus."

The flexibility of guards Gabby Smith (5'10") and Elan Brown (6'1") as shooters and rebounders are also worth noting. "It will be a fun season in that we'll be very versatile. The kids will be unselfish and have already played out of position and accepted different roles and valued versatility."

Toughness and athleticism are valued commodities on this diverse team. The ‘Dores are ready to showcase their skill set against a talented collegiate competitor from nearby Jackson, Tenn.

The Union University Bulldogs return All-American guards Kaitlin Dudley (17 ppg), Kayla Hudson (9 ppg and 7 apg), and three-time All American Dudley Graves (10 ppg), who returns from a season-ending injury.

Jence said that although Vandy at midweek didn't yet know much about the Bulldogs, they will be prepared.

"We're going to focus on us and what we're doing, and not what the other team is doing."

With the spotlight on what they can achieve, and not what they may be missing for the moment, the ‘Dores are ready for the season to begin.

"I'm excited," Jence said. "It'll be good as long as the rest of us stay healthy."

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