Besides the birth of his first child, there wasn?t much for USF women?s basketball coach Jose Fernandez to celebrate last season.
After taking over from his former boss Jerry Ann Winters in the preseason, Fernandez and the Bulls fought as the USF season rapidly went from bad to worse. A final record of 4-24 only begins to tell the story of a season that seemed to never end. From the racial discrimination allegations that eventually cost Winters her job, to the illnesses, injuries and defections that depleted the lineup, USF women?s basketball last season was an exercise in crisis management.
?Last year was so difficult. We had a lot of distractions on and off the court,? Fernandez said. ?But I think one positive that really we can focus on this year is that the returning players from last year?s squad … had a great amount of work ethic and never-die attitude.?
Guards Aiya Shepard and Melissa Tape, forwards Lindsey Smith and Sarah Lochmann and center Ashley Teets return to the lineup this season. The Bulls lose the services of center Ivana Lukic and shooting guard Shannon Layne ? USF?s all-time leading three-point shooter and a 1,000-point career scorer ? who were seniors on last year?s squad. Senior forward Denetrice Stinson has a career-ending back injury, while Kyla Hill, Heather Wilson and Rochelle Cherry have all transferred.
The loss of those players has not sent Fernandez into a panic, since the returning players will be joined by a recruiting class that was ranked in the top 25 nationally. Center Allison AuBuchon and guards Jen Kline, Alana Tanksley and Tristen Webb were all rated in the top 50 at their positions as high school seniors. A fifth top-50 signee, forward Shaunte Carter, did not meet NCAA requirements for entry and will not join the Bulls this year.
?All four of them will be able to contribute and play a lot of minutes (this season),? Fernandez said.
Sonia Cotton, a transfer from Florida International who came to USF last year, will also make her first appearance for the Bulls this year after sitting out last season because of NCAA transfer regulations. Another transfer, 6-5 center Jameelah Trimble from Florida, will be eligible to play starting in the 2002-03 season, when she will have two years of eligibility remaining.
Bringing the Bulls? complement of available players to 11 is senior guard Dione Smith, who was dismissed from the team by Winters following the 1999-00 season, got reinstated last year at the time of Winters? firing and ended up redshirting the season. Smith is one of eight former or current Bulls to file lawsuits against Winters and the university, citing racial discrimination and retaliation.
Though some members of the team were vocal in their support of Winters, Fernandez said there is no ill will surrounding Smith.
?Her teammates respect her as a player and as a person,? he said. ?So we haven?t had any problems internally in the program with her returning.?
Smith and Webb will compete for the starting point guard spot with the incumbent Tape. Shepard, an All-Conference USA Second Team selection, will vie with Tanksley and Kline for the starting shooting guard position.
Cotton is the favorite to hold down the starting small forward slot, while Lochmann, Lindsey Smith and Kline will compete to be the starter at power forward. Smith suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament for the second time in her career during the Bulls? home finale, but Fernandez said she is ahead of schedule for recovery.
The center position will be controlled by the combination of Teets and AuBuchon.
?If we want to go big, we can also go big with Ashley Teets at the five (center position) and Allison AuBuchon playing the four (power forward position),? Fernandez said.
Because of a lack of depth on last season?s roster, Fernandez was forced to employ a half-court game to slow the pace of the game. But with 11 available players on this year?s squad, he foresees using more of an up-tempo style.
?Last year the style of play that we played was more of a half-court style ? slow down, control the tempo ? just because we didn?t have enough bodies,? Fernandez said. ?Next year … I want to run, press, shoot the three, open up the floor and really get after it on both ends of the floor.?
If that plan works as designed, the Bulls will improve on their last-place finish in the C-USA standings. However, along with traditional conference powers such as Tulane and Louisville, two more obstacles stand in the way of the Bulls ? new C-USA teams East Carolina and Texas Christian. ECU?s 12 home wins last season tied a school record, while TCU posted a school-record 25 wins and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
?Right off the bat, adding TCU and East Carolina makes our league stronger,? Fernandez said. ?TCU is an NCAA Tournament team and they won their league out there in the WAC (Western Athletic Conference). Right now, probably if there?s one team you?d pick to win the league, it?s them.?
And the distractions of last season have not yet gone away either. Winters is fighting for her old job and an administrative judge ended his investigation by recommending that she be reinstated. The eight lawsuits, including the one by Smith, are still pending, and the saga continues to receive considerable attention locally and nationally.
?I told my kids when all this came out in the paper, ?Hey, we can?t control what?s going on out there. All we can control is what?s going on in the classroom and what goes on in the Sun Dome,?? Fernandez said.
?All these kids ? all the newcomers, the transfers and the returning kids ? (are) on a mission to turn this program around and put the University of South Florida and the basketball program on the map. We cannot control what comes out in the media.?
Contact Khari Williams at email@example.com