2000 Women's Basketball Preview
by Leon Saffelle, 11/15/00

Well as the famous saying goes, "you can’t win for losing." That’s what the Virginia Tech women’s basketball team is facing this season. Despite loading up with some big recruits and a Division I transfer, entering the Big East Conference may keep Tech from garnering its fourth consecutive 20-win season.

The Hokies are entering new territory in a top-tier basketball conference – four Big East teams are in the Top 25 of the USA TODAY/ESPN poll (No. 1 Connecticut, No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 7 Rutgers, No. 22 Boston College).

As if that wasn’t hard enough, the Hokies will also have to trudge through other perennial top 25 teams in No. 12 Old Dominion, No. 15 Virginia and Clemson (No. 31 by votes).

But before you write the Hokies off all together, the team did manage 4 votes in the poll and was ranked tied for fifth in the Big East – tied with Georgetown. All of the teams in front of them in the Big East rankings are in the aforementioned Top 25.

The team’s look and feel will be very similar to last year’s team until after exams end in December. The new look of the team should come about during the Clemson game. That’s when Jr. G Lisa Guarneri, a U. of Illinois transfer, will be eligible to play her first game after sitting out the required two semesters under NCAA rules. Her grades shouldn’t be a problem, since she was an Academic Big Ten selection and is a member of the National Honor Society.

Guarneri was the starting point guard at Illinois (currently ranked No. 24) when she decided to transfer after her sophomore season. During the ’98-99 season, she tallied 116 assists for the Illini, but perhaps more importantly, helped guide them to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Guarneri’s presence will be felt in a big way this year, as Tech struggled last season at the point guard position, after losing Tech’s all-time assists leader Lisa Weatherspoon to graduation. The Hokies had to make the difficult decision to move shooting guard Amy Wetzel to the point to help ease then-freshman Emily Lipton into the void left by Weatherspoon. This was a rough transition and may have hurt Tech in the long run, as Lipton, who was slowed by injuries, never quite took hold of the starting spot and caused Wetzel, a great shooter, to look more for the pass.

In the scrimmages I’ve seen, Guarneri may well double her Illinois assist totals as she’s a sharp passer and seems to be able to handle both fast break and slowed-down offenses with ease.

I rarely talk about a single player in a preview to this extent, but she will be the key to Tech’s success this season, as her main responsibility will be to get the ball down into the paint – something Tech had a BIG problem with last season.

The Hokie back court should be pretty sound this season with Guarneri and Lipton (who looked much improved in scrimmages) running the point. The shooting guard tandem of r-Sr. Wetzel and Jr. Chrystal Starling should keep defenses honest with their good perimeter shooting and ability to drive the lane.

But the back court maybe deeper this season than ever for the Hokies and that is a good thing. With Wetzel suffering some preseason ankle troubles, coach Bonnie Henrickson may need to look even more to Jr. G Mollie Owings for defensive support. Owings is also an offensive threat and saw a big jump in her numbers last season – even starting two games.

The swing position is also very strong this season with r-Jr. Sara Hicks being the primary starter, but she won’t be without competition. Despite her 3pt. numbers dipping last season, she was Tech’s best outside shooter and also passes very well. But if Hicks should falter, Starling will be there to pick up the slack in addition to freshman Davina Simmons. Simmons will be a huge addition to the Hokies, adding strength, speed and height (6’0"). She was all set to go to UNC until her Tech visit. She will be a key player in the Hokies’ future and has the potential to provide solid minutes this season.

The front court will be a very interesting place to watch this year. The gang from last season will be back: Sr. F Tere Williams, Jr. F/C Nicole Jones and So. C Christina Strother.

Williams, an All-America candidate, will be starting power forward, but questions remain on if Jones will keep her starting center spot. Strother made major strides last season despite a shoulder problem, which was successfully operated on in the off-season, and could challenge Jones for her starting spot.

But that’s not all. Tech has Fr. C Ieva Kublina – a 6’4" shot blocker with a three-point touch. She has the ability to play down low or on the perimeter. In the past, Henrickson has had good luck shaping good high school post players into solid college post players. Kublina played for the Latvian national team this past summer, so she’s had experience against some good European competition. That may not seem like much, but with dominate programs like UConn sporting some good international players, the experience could be a big plus.

From what I’ve seen here, Tech has the makings for a great team here. One that, in the Metro or A-10 Conferences, could bring home the whole ball of wax. Fortunately, yet presently unfortunately, the Hokies have moved on to the upper echelon of college basketball conferences – the Big East.

Fortunately, some of the team’s tougher games will be at home: UConn and Virginia.

I honestly don’t think that having UConn at home will help the Hokies win, but it may help them overcome some jitters of playing the national champions. Tech is also blessed at getting to play Boston College and Notre Dame twice (home-road series). But Tech’s road schedule is not one to envy: Clemson, Old Dominion and Rutgers. And they will also face difficult road games in other Big East venues and an early season tournament in Tallahassee (where they will play Michigan State and possibly Florida State).

The Hokies have a maximum of 27 regular season games plus the Big East tournament. With eight games against Top 25 teams, I think the Hokies could win three of them. Assuming they win all of their other regular season games, this puts them at 22 wins – a nice thought, but perhaps a lofty goal with them being in new conference. I think that Tech might have a more realistic expectation of 15-18 regular season wins with an outside shot of getting to 20 depending on where their Big East tournament ranking falls.

But there is the Bonnie factor. Coach Henrickson has never known anything less than a 20-win season as Tech’s head coach, and she may not be ready for that streak to end.

So, despite all of the challenges that lie ahead for the Hokies, it seems that Bonnie Ball will be alive and well at the Cassell this year.

Leon Saffelle covered Tech women’s basketball for the Collegiate Times from 1994-1996 and now works for USA Today.


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