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October 7, 2008

Clean slate refreshes women's hoops squad as new season approaches

By: Matt Kovatch

Brittany Cook

The United States is just a few short weeks away from one of the most important presidential elections in its history. As the debate rages on about whether John McCain or Barack Obama is better equipped to handle the blundering economy, the war in Iraq and a mess of other issues, one thing is for sure – the winner will have his work cut out for him.

What this country needs is a fresh start, and no matter what happens come Nov. 4th, that’s exactly what it will get. The same could be said for the Virginia Tech women’s basketball team, which will begin its 2008-09 season just 10 days later on Nov. 14th.

The Hokies began last season 12-2 and with high approval ratings, but once conference play began and the rest of the league entered the race, Tech stumbled in the polls with just two ACC wins and a final overall record of 15-15. The accumulating losses seemed to weigh on the young team, and no matter how one tried to spin it, the consensus was that, just like the next president of the United States, the 2008-09 hoops campaign couldn’t arrive soon enough.

“There’s a hunger and an enthusiasm that I see from a team that’s not happy with how it finished last year,” head coach Beth Dunkenberger said of a team that enters the schedule with a much-needed clean slate. “That has driven them all spring, all summer and all fall. That’s what has me excited about starting practice and getting back out on the court with them. They are intense and very goal-driven, and they know where they want to go. It’s good to see that passion.”

“We’ve all looked at last season as a learning experience,” added Brittany Cook, the redshirt senior guard who led the ACC in scoring a year ago. “It’s [last season] motivating to improve upon last year. We need to come into this season and try to reach our potential.”

As bleak as things looked at times last year, there truly is potential on this team. Cook obviously arrived in a big way and just missed out on first-team all-conference honors after pouring in 17.9 points per contest, but she is just part of what could be a formidable backcourt.

Sophomore Andrea Barbour certainly deserves mentioning in any discussion about scoring, as she stepped in as a freshman and finished right behind Cook at 15 points per game. She is one of the most talented playmakers in the league, but offseason shoulder surgery will likely delay her debut until sometime in December. That’s where one of this year’s rookies comes in – 6-foot rookie guard Shanel Harrison.

“I think Shanel is one of the most highly decorated recruits to come out of the Washington, D.C., area,” Dunkenberger said. “She was ranked in the top 40 in the nation by some publications. She played on an AAU team with a couple of kids who went to North Carolina and a kid who went to Stanford, and to me, she was the go-to player on that team. She’s got experience in wanting the ball in crunch situations, and I really think that she can step in and play right away.”

If that is true, then the Hokies could have a very potent trio of scorers once Barbour returns. But who will feed them the ball?

Reliable senior point guard Laura Haskins is back after ranking third in the ACC in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, and she will be contrasted by the addition of another newcomer, Nikki Davis. The redshirt sophomore is a push-the-tempo spark plug who also won’t be available until mid-December, but that is due to NCAA transfer rules, as she arrived at Tech last December following a season at Alabama in 2006-07. Outside shooters Lindsay Biggs and Lakeisha Logan, as well defensive stopper Shani Grey and senior A.J. Lemaitre, add to a deep contingent of guards.

Deep, however, is the last word that one might use to describe the Hokies’ group of post players. There is some talent there – junior forward Utahya Drye had a breakout season last year and is athletic enough to do a number of things, while senior center Amber Hall is a solid rebounder, shot blocker and jump shooter. Those two will start again, but the team no longer has the services of 6-4 Eleanor Brentnall, one of the first players off the bench last season. She opted not to return to school after going home to Australia over the summer, so that leaves three youngsters on the roster who must step up and contribute in the paint.

“I think we’ll see more from our post players,” Dunkenberger said. “Elizabeth Basham and Brittany Gordon had a lot to learn as freshmen, but I think that they’re ready to step up and contribute a whole lot more this year.”

Here’s hoping they do because the minutes are there to be had. The 6-2 Basham was off to a surprising start as a freshman before coming down with mono, while the 6-4 Gordon may be the most improved player on the team from a year ago. Though still only sophomores, the pair has been around the block once now and that should prove valuable to the Hokies’ other freshman, 6-2 Brittany Lewis. The lanky forward is more of an athletic-type than a physical-type, but with the way Drye plays and the way Tech’s guards like to run, that may end up helping her fit in even better.

All things considered, it looks like the Hokies have the talent to take a couple of steps up in the standings. Some who look at the past year might not agree – “We know we’re going to have doubters,” Cook said. “But if we believe in ourselves, we’ll be the only ones who can stop us from within.”

The key to any new season is optimism, and this team has it. Optimism is what is fueling the upcoming election, so why can’t it fuel the Hokies? Just take all of the buzzwords being tossed around by the presidential candidates – change, hope, reform, believe – and simply apply them to this year’s Tech basketball team. It needs some votes.

Q&A with Brittany Cook Catching up with the ACC’s leading scorer

IHS: You were a little banged up at the end of last season. How is your health?
BC: “It’s good. Toward the end of last season, I was kind of exhausted from the wear and tear of the season. I had a couple of bumps and bruises here and there, but I’ve had time to take care of my body and rest it in areas where it needed to be rested.”

IHS: How does a workout fiend like yourself take a break?
BC: “It’s hard because I always feel pressured to be in good shape, and if I take time off, I feel like I’m doing an injustice to the team. It was difficult to sit out a little bit, but it was what was needed this summer. I don’t need to be in playing shape in June or July – I need to be healthy and prepared and ready to go in November.”

IHS: You had a fantastic statistical season last year. How are you going to top it?
BC: “I don’t really ever go into a season focused on individual goals, but I know it’s going to be hard to top. I was blessed last year to be healthy and to be able to compete in all of the games at a high level. It will always be a season that I’ll look back on when I’m older, and I feel pretty blessed to have had it. I know this is my last year, so I’m just going to try to do my best and enjoy every minute of it. I’m going to come in with the same approach as last year, and hopefully more wins will come along the way.”

IHS: What have you been working on improving since last year?

BC: “I’m not complacent with anything. I think there is always room for improvement in every area, so I don’t want to say I focused on one thing or another. I try to be well-rounded and work on everything because I know that, just like last year, defenses are going to be aiming to shut me down. But if they do that, I’m confident in the players I have around me to step up and make them pay for it.”

IHS: You guys have hung tough with some of the best teams in the nation. Who are you the closest to pulling off the upset against?
BC: “I think Maryland, definitely, and then I’d put Duke after them. I think we match up better with those two teams than we do with Carolina. Carolina is hard to match up with because of their athleticism. It presents more of a problem for us than Duke and Maryland.”

Writer’s note: We would be remiss if we published this preview without mentioning the tragic passing of Rick Cook, Brittany Cook’s father, who recently suffered a fatal heart attack. Rick played a huge role not only as Brittany’s dad, but also in her development as a basketball player, having served as her coach throughout high school. Our thoughts remain with Brittany and the Cook family.