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December 7, 2009

First Impressions - The early play of Tech's five rookies has things looking up for the future of women's hoops

By: Matt Kovatch

Alyssa Fenyn, who averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in her first six starts, is a big reason why Tech's five freshmen have made an immediate impact.

They won’t be mistaken for the “Fab Five” of early 90s Michigan lore any time soon, but the Virginia Tech women’s basketball team has five freshmen of its own who may very well make a name for themselves before all is said and done.

The “Hellacious Handful?” The “Quintessential Quintet?” OK, maybe they don’t need a nickname yet, especially not a bad one, but after six November games, early indications are that this class appears capable of making a positive impact very soon.

“I think [the freshmen] balance out what we already had, and they fill some needs,” Tech head coach Beth Dunkenberger said after the Hokies began the season 4-2. “We’ve got a good mix of kids who are solid fundamentally and who can put the ball in the hole in a couple of different ways. It’s nice to have so many buttons to push.”

Those “buttons” include guards Alyssa Fenyn and Aerial Wilson, forward Abby Redick and forward/centers Porschia Hadley and Taylor Ayers.

Because Dunkenberger has so many options this year, those freshmen have seen inconsistent minutes through the end of November. It takes a while to incorporate that many new players into a rotation, especially when they are joining a rotation that, over the second half of last season, basically consisted of six players. Tech played six players at least 22 minutes a game – including three players at least 32 minutes a game – in ACC contests last year, and one of those players (Laura Haskins) is gone.

While it might seem natural to simply plug those freshmen in and go, Dunkenberger has been using the season’s early games to experiment with different lineups, tinker with players’ roles and iron out a new rotation.

“One of the things I’m trying to figure out is who to play with whom, as well as when and where,” Dunkenberger said. “But one thing that was glaring to me [after watching film of a loss at VCU] was that some of our younger kids needed some more opportunities. I was being a little conservative with them, but they need to be thrown into the fire.”

For the record, Tech’s five freshmen are averaging a combined 26 points and 17.4 rebounds in 70 minutes per game (through six games). But the most telling contribution can’t be quantified by statistics, and that comes in the form of the poise, promise and energy that they bring to court. Something just feels different when watching this year’s team. Whether or not that translates to immediate wins remains to be seen, but there’s an excitement with these new players – an excitement in which one doesn’t quite know what to expect. Maybe that will change once more is seen of the five rookies, but for now, it’s fun to have some new blood out there showing what they can do.

For those who have yet to catch the Hokies in action, Redick summed up her fellow freshmen pretty accurately following a win over George Mason.

“The cool thing is that each of us has our own strengths – there’s no player alike,” she said. “Taylor is a sick rebounder; Porschia can do a lot; Aerial is really explosive; and Alyssa is a slasher. It’s just great that we’re all diverse and that we can each bring something different to the table. Honestly, with the five of us, we could have a full team on the court at each position.”

In fact, Tech came close to doing that a few times against George Mason, the game after Dunkenberger decided the rookies needed a little bit of a longer leash. There were three freshmen on the floor for much of the game and, at times, four, as Tech’s newcomers combined to play 86 minutes against the Patriots.

If one were to put together an all-freshmen lineup for the Hokies, here’s how it would look:

Wilson would play at the point, a position she is still figuring out after playing the 2-spot in high school. She can be a little wild and will make mistakes and miss some shots, but at the same time, she has the ability to do things that others can’t, like getting out in the open court and finishing despite contact.

Fenyn would be the shooting guard, and she has actually started each of Tech’s first six games at that spot. Her minutes (26.2 per game) are the most consistent of any freshman, and she has produced, ranking second on the team with 10.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per contest. She is the most well rounded of the freshmen, and she has a knack for stringing together a few buckets and igniting scoring spurts. She can get her points in a number of ways, and she is valuable in that she can grab a defensive rebound and take off with it instead of waiting for an outlet.

Redick would man the 3-spot in the all-rookie lineup, and while she doesn’t stuff the stat sheet, she has a great presence on the floor. One might mistake her for a senior because of the way that she carries herself – she’s as fundamental as they come and does all of the little things that often get overlooked.

While Redick has a commanding presence when in the game, Hadley, who can play the 4 or the 5, is just the opposite. It’s easy to forget she’s out there, but she has a sneaky-good jump shot, shoots for a high percentage and will contribute her share of rebounds and blocked shots. Some more post moves would be nice to see, but she’s shown the ability to really hold her own in the paint.

Then there is Ayers, another post player who has seen the fewest minutes of the five so far. She can rack up the boards in a hurry (she averages one for every two minutes played), so one has to wonder what she can do if given the opportunity to play 25-30 minutes.

However things end up shaking out as the season progresses, one thing is for certain – these freshmen are up for the challenge.

“They’ve come to Virginia Tech ready to play,” Dunkenberger said. “They have a smaller learning curve than a lot of kids whom we’ve brought here.”

“The freshmen all came from very competitive high schools, so we’re coming in ready to go,” Redick echoed. “With anything, the more you get into it, the more comfortable you get.”

Well, Redick and her classmates have begun to get into it, and the comfort is starting to show. Let’s just hope a tacky nickname doesn’t come with it.