PULLMAN — June Daugherty, who has coached more than 700 college basketball games in a head coaching career spanning 20-plus years, has a unique challenge as she preps for her eighth season at Washington State. She must integrate seven true freshmen -- from all over the world -- into a program that turned the proverbial corner last year by going to the postseason for the first time since 1991.
If the Cougar women get back to March in 2014-15, they'll do so with a roster in which nearly 50 percent of the members have yet to play a minute of college ball.
And it's not just youth that's being served, either. Four of the seven rookies are international players.
Six-five center Bianca Blanaru
is from Romania, 6-2 forward Louise Brown
and 5-7 guard Krystle McKenzie
are from Australia, and 5-8 guard Pinelopi Pavlopoulou
is from Greece.
The other three newbies are West Coast products: 6-3 forward Nike McClure
of Chehalis, 6-2 guard Ashley Bolston
of Medford, and 5-10 combo guard Caila Hailey
of Gardena, Calif.
The cultural, linguistic, age, and basketball differences all pose challenges for the staff as they integrate the freshmen with eight returning players, Daugherty told Cougfan.com in a recent interview. But, she added, spending a lot of individual time with the newcomers, especially the international student-athletes, will smooth the transition.
Two transitions that won't be difficult for the foreign players will be the shot clock (30 seconds in the U.S. instead of the international 24 seconds) and the three-point arch -- it's not as far out in the U.S. than it is overseas.
Daugherty said the international players, while perhaps not as athletic as the recruits from the U.S., bring refined skills to the court, especially with their passing.
Bottom line, though, “I think it’s the best recruiting class I’ve ever had, so I’m really excited about that,” said Daugherty, who has never been shy about gushing over a recruiting class.
“It’s a group of high character, it’s a very talented group, they’re very long and athletic, and they’re a versatile group. I think, too, that we’ve got several kids in that group who really love basketball and want to be great, and they’re going to be willing to do whatever it takes to achieve greatness at this level, individually and as a team. A coach couldn’t ask for more than that.”
Daugherty said she won't hesitate to play the youngsters once they've learned the system and displayed a penchant for going the extra mile in practice.
“Our goal is to make practice harder than a game," she said. "And if our upperclassmen continue to have that type of (exemplary) leadership, which they have, and if we continue to break things down as a coaching staff and really try to bring each one (of the freshmen) along according to their understanding and their rate of improvement, then we’ll be fine.”
AS FOR ACCLIMATING THE NEW PLAYERS
with the veterans, Hailey
, one of the freshmen, tells CF.C the process -- which began over the summer -- has been excellent. Whether it's going out for ice cream or getting their hair done, the players are always together in some way, she said.
“I love everybody on the team, we hang out all the time.”
Fellow freshman Brown
said her new teammates have welcomed her with open arms.
“They’ve never really not included us in anything,” Brown said of the upperclassmen. “They’ve all been so welcoming, and throughout the practices they guide us through things, and they know it’s hard for us trying to learn, catch up, and try to get where they’re at, so they’ve been awesome.
“... it’s never a split between freshmen and returners ... Everyone’s really cool and we all get along really well. We all clicked really quickly so it’s been great.”
All-Pac-12 senior guard Tia Presley
has been integral in acclimating the new freshmen to the team and college in general, said Daugherty.
“I really applaud Tia because she’s somebody that has spent time this summer improving her own self and her own game,” Daugherty said. “She has very high aspirations for herself and this program, but also her leadership qualities. It’s really fun to see her evolve the way she is, both on the court and off the court.”
Hailey said she identifies in a big way with veterans Lia Galdeira
and Mariah Cooks
, but she has been dubbed a “Little Tia” because of on-court attitude, skills and even favorite foods.
“She does bring me under her wing," Hailey said of Presley.
Daugherty said it's easy for players to feed off of Presley in practice and games because of her energy and focus.
“She’s very competitive, she’s very outspoken on and off the court,” Brown said of Presley. “She’ll tell you how it is, and there’s a mutual respect between us, like if she tells us something, we’ll do it.”
The Cougars lose three seniors from last season's 17-17, WNIT team: Sage Romberg, Hana Potter and Brandi Thomas. Romberg has signed to play professionally in Spain.
In Presley and fellow All-Pac-12 performer Galdeira, the Cougars return their top two scorers (19.0 and 18.5 ppg, respectively); they're top two in steals (56 and 80); and Nos. 2 and 3 in assists (59 and 71). Dawynyelle Awa, No. 1 in assists last season with 115, is back for the Cougs in 2014-15 and so is the last year's top rebounder, Shalie Dheensaw (6.6 per game).
WSU opens the season with a Nov. 2 exhibition game in Pullman against Central Methodist and then commence regular games on Nov. 14 when they host Dayton.
The Cougars will have 15 of their 18 conference games televised by the Pac-12 Networks this season, and one non-conference game -- the Nov. 19 home matchup against always formidable Nebraska.
WSU opens Pac-12 play the first weekend of 2015, heading to Arizona to face the Wildcats on Jan. 3 and Arizona State on Jan. 5 at 7 p.m. The following week, the Cougars play their first conference games at home when California comes to town Jan. 9 and Stanford on Jan. 11.
Pictured above, left to right, are Bianca Blanaru (top), Pinelopi Pavlopoulou (bottom), Krystle McKenzie, Caila Hailey, Louisa Brown, Nike McClure and Ashley Bolston.
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DAUGHERTY SAYS YOU WON'T WANT TO MISS WHAT 2014-15 COUGS HAVE IN STORE