Ladyjacks Get Set for the 2002-03 Season
Oct. 23, 2002
Second-year head coach Lee Ann Riley came to Nacogdoches not trying to build a winner, but with the mandate to keep SFA at the top of the Southland Conference and return the program to national prominence. The Ladyjacks handled the first part with ease in 2002, winning a Southland Conference record 19 league contests, their 13th league title and advancing to their 17th NCAA Championship tournament.
So what could the Ladyjacks do in 2002-03 for an encore? How about playing a nationally prominent schedule, which the Ladyjacks are doing facing five teams that saw post season play last year, including 2002 NCAA runner-up Oklahoma.
"I'm a firm believer that to get better and grow, you have to challenge yourself," said Riley. "We're challenging our coaching staff and our players with this schedule. The biggest thing we have to do is grow up quickly in those types of hostile environments, where every possession is a war. We want to place our kids in a hostile environment and see how they are going to respond. We'll have some growing pains, but we believe we'll also have some success as well."
The growing pains come from the fact that SFA will enter the season with one of the youngest teams in school history. The Ladyjacks return only two starters and two letterwinners from last year. Of the Ladyjacks 10-person roster, seven are underclassmen, including five true-freshmen. To most followers of the Purple and White, the phrase "rebuilding year" might be mentioned, but that phrase doesn't exist in Riley's lexicon.
"This year will be very exciting," said Riley. "Our team is going to have a whole new look. We have only two players returning from last year's team, so it will be exciting to see how they come together. We are definitely a very young team but I also believe that we have the opportunity to be very good. These players are hungry and really want to be a part of something special. One of the best things about this team is they are very coachable. When you have players that can do what you want them to do you can have success."
The following is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2002-03 Ladyjack basketball team.
Wright is coming off a junior season where she was slowed by injuries but still finished the year fourth on the team in scoring. Wright has really taken ownership in her role as a senior leader.
"Nathesia is a very explosive player when she is healthy but she had some calf problems that slowed her down last year," said Riley. "This is her final year so she's hungry. She has done a great job in her leadership role and has really done what you expect your seniors to do. As a coach you hope this is her best year and that is exactly what she wants."
Grant redshirted last season and returns to the team this year giving the Ladyjacks added experience and leadership on the floor. Grant is such a versatile athlete that Riley wouldn't be surprised to see her earn time at both guard and forward positions.
"Yolanda Grant is just a winner," said Riley. "She is a great rebounder who is relentless at attacking the basket. In our system she will be a great three because of her speed. I have no problem with playing her at any of the five positions on the floor."
But the Ladyjacks can't rely on only two players to hold down the fort. This is a position where youth will play big role in the Ladyjacks lineup. SFA will rely on a stable of freshmen to carry a significant load at both the three and four positions, including LaToya Mills (Houston, Texas) who sat out last year with an injury.
"Mills has impressed me in the preseason more than anybody," said Riley. "She was a medical redshirt last year and has worked hard to get herself back in shape for this season. The great thing about LaToya is she still doesn't know how good she can be. She is a strong young lady that will really help us on the glass. It is going to be hard for her to not to be on the floor."
"Kendria is a tremendous player," said Riley. "She is athletic and smooth on the court. As a freshman, she comes into the program ahead of the others because she was so well coached at the high school level. The only thing she knows is winning. Her high school team won three state titles and those are intangibles that you just love.
"Jamie Boles is a solid player. She is very competitive and has proven that she is going find a way to get on the court. She shoots the ball well and can rebound. She has a great attitude, which will be a bonus for our team. She has the kind of personality where players really enjoy being on her team," added Riley.
The Ladyjacks return only one guard from last seasons 24-6 Southland Conference champion team, and that is Nathesa Wright.
One key area that the Ladyjacks will have to fill is the point guard spot. The Ladyjacks won't be lacking talent at point guard but there is a lack of actual NCAA experience at the position.
"The point guard is the X factor, our unknown this season," said Riley. "A team is only as good as its guard play. I think that we have some good choices. You may see Nathesia (Wright) or Yolanda Grant play it a little. The point might be a little out of position for those two but they are seniors and are willing to do what is necessary to win."
Another player that should see playing time at the point is the soft-spoken Britany Vinson. But don't let the off-the-court demeanor of Vinson fool you, according to Riley her actions speak volumes.
"I think Britany Vinson will be a surprise in the conference. Britany is not a very vocal young lady, but she is a fierce competitor. She comes to play every time she steps on the court and that is what we like about Britany. She is a very sound, coachable basketball player who can shoot.
"The point guard position will come down to how quickly Britany and Yolanda adapt to the position. It's not that the talent level or the ability isn't there, but the actual NCAA Divison I playing time."
"Kirby is a tremendous three-point shooter," said Riley. "She has never seen a shot she didn't like and that is the quality you like to see in a shooter. We look for her to come in and just knock down shots. Kirby also is another player on this team that works really hard on her game.
"Kim is another one of these freshmen we have that is very competitive. She is a very strong young lady but is coming off ACL surgery during her senior year. I think by the time the conference season rolls around she will be a huge factor in our rotation," added Riley.
Due to their extreme versatility on the court, don't be surprised to see Wright and Grant get some action at the off guard position as well.
Senior Amy Collins will solidify the low post for SFA. Collins returns from a junior year that saw her lead the Southland Conference in blocks (1.73 blocks per game) and become one of the Ladyjacks biggest weapons as the season progressed, averaging 11.9 points and 7.6 rebounds over the final 17 games.
"I'm so proud of Amy," said Riley. "The last half of the season she finally started believing in herself and realizing that there is so much more to her game than she thought. She will be our leader. We've talked about her being a dominant player. She wants to be that dominating player and I think she will be. She developed so much as a player last year and I believe that there is still room for her to continue to grow on the court."
Spelling Collins in the low post will be another of young, talented players Riley brought in for the 2002-03 season. The 6-4 Melissa France (Bossier, La.) is a raw talent that could really stregthen the Ladyjacks low post game.
"I've talked with Melissa a lot during the whole recruiting process that she has a lot of natural ability that she is just now learning how to use," said Riley. "The amount she progresses will really help us. It usually takes big kids a little bit longer but she is a real hard worker."