There is always room for improvement, and that’s what the women’s basketball team concentrated on during the off-season.
After clinching their first NCAA Tournament berth last season, the Bulls are now even deeper and more versatile.
USF lost only two seniors from last year: forward Ezria Parsons, who led the team with 8.5 rebounds, and center Sharon Cambridge, a player mainly used as a reserve.
Coach Jose Fernandez hopes to supplement the loss of those two players with four freshman recruits and two transfers.
“We’re definitely going to have at least (an) eight-(player rotation),” Fernandez said. “Right now, I’d say we have 10 (players) on the team that can play in the Big East.”
For some teams, having too much talent can be a hindrance, but it’s a problem the Bulls welcome.
“It wasn’t like that last year. We only had two people on the bench,” forward Jessica Dickson said. “We have a nice situation where we can sub in players and give everyone some rest.”
The opening-day roster includes three centers, four forwards, one swing player and five guards. Having quality players at each position allows USF to change its style of play and allows for adjustments against each opponent.
“We have a lot of different lineups we can show the other teams,” guard Shantia Grace said. “There is a defensive, big, fast, and shooting lineup. There are lots of different ways we can play.”
USF essentially has two starting point guards with Grace and senior Tristen Webb. During the 2003-04 season, Webb tore her ACL and missed the season. After rehabilitating, Webb suffered the same injury in preseason play the following year. She was the starter before Grace’s arrival and was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA for this year.
“(Webb) is a good leader with a great work ethic and gives us great depth in our backcourt,” Fernandez said. “We can play (Webb and Grace) together, and along with Dickson have tremendous scoring on the wings.”
Joining Webb and Grace in the backcourt is junior college transfer Daiane Packer. The sharp-shooting guard holds the Trinity Valley Community College record with 10 three-point shots in a game. In her preseason debut for USF against the Miami Sun, Packer went 4-7 from three-point range and scored 14 total points.
Rachel Sheats, the starting shooting guard, is one of the team’s top defenders, leading the team with 56 steals last year.
Jessica Jackson rounds out the backcourt, providing USF with another long-range threat. Jackson shot a team-best 36 percent from three-point range last year.
Dickson is coming off the best season in USF history, leading the Big East in points per game (22). She has already been named Big East Preseason Player of the Year.
Last season, the Bulls led the Big East in blocked shots (4.8 per game), and the main reason was the play of Nalini Miller. She set the team record with 65 blocks last season and already is the all-time leader in the category.
Miller is trying to become the first player since Keira Rozier to lead the Bulls in rejections through four consecutive seasons.
Junior ChiChi Okpaleke and freshman Porche Grant add size and defensive presence to the team.
“My job is to come in and bring some excitement and keep the momentum going in our favor,” Okpaleke said. “Last year, we lost a few close games, and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Perhaps the most versatile player on the team is Caitlyn Mitryk. Against the Sun, her responsibilities included handling the ball and playing on the perimeter as well as in the post. Fernandez said her position depends on the needs of the team.
Freshman Melissa Dalembert is one of the outed recruits brought in by Fernandez, as she averaged 18 points and 14 rebounds during her senior season at Miramar High School.
Up front, the Bulls are heavily relying on freshman Stephanie Sarosi to make up for the loss of Parsons on the glass.
Debuting against the Sun, Sarosi grabbed 13 rebounds to lead USF.
Standing at 6 feet 5 inches, Sarosi is the tallest player on the team, but defenders have to play her on the perimeter as she can shoot from long range.
California transfer Jessica Lawson has to sit out the season because of NCAA rules.
Entering its second season in the Big East, Fernandez feels his team has the personnel to make a run at the conference championship.
“(The) Big East is one of the best conferences in the country, so we’ll see what happens,” Fernandez said. “Last year we lost about six (conference) games that we could have won. So if we can turn that around, who knows?”
If the Bulls can put everything together, fans might see another first from this program – an NCAA Tournament win.