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October 15, 2013When Russ Rose has some coaching advice to share, you pay attention. The longtime women's volleyball coach has developed one All-America player after another at Penn State, and he's had to, because the most inevitable part of college athletics is that players always depart.
During the past off-season, the five-time NCAA title-winner offered his colleague Coquese Washington a bit of advice about the rebuilding project she was about to undertake as coach of the freshman-laden Lady Lion basketball team.
"One of the things he told me about having a new team and a different team when you graduate some stalwarts and people who've had a big impact is to keep the standards high," Washington said. "Keep the expectations really, really high, and [players] will meet them. So that's how we've been coaching them these first few weeks of practice. We've kept the expectations high. We've been very demanding. And we expect [players] to meet them."
Penn State has won the Big Ten's regular-season title seven times, including the past two seasons, so high expectations come naturally. But the challenges this year will be entirely different from the ones the Lady Lions confronted the past few seasons, as Washington acknowledged Tuesday afternoon at the team's preseason media day. Penn State has undergone a massive off-season makeover, with only five players returning from last year's team and eight newcomers joining the roster, two of whom won't be able to play until 2014-15.
Fortunately for the Lady Lions, the core of returnees includes starting guards Maggie Lucas and Dara Taylor. Both are coming off fine junior seasons, with Lucas having won Big Ten Player of the Year honors and Taylor having made the Big Ten's All-Defensive team.
Of the 40.8 points per game that Penn State returns this season, Lucas accounts for nearly half (20.1). Recently named to the Wade Trophy's 25-player preseason watch list, she's been the focal point of the Lady Lions' offense for the past three seasons. As Washington noted, "People have been trying to take away Maggie since she walked through the door." They've been failing to do that, more often than not, but she's preparing to receive even more defensive attention than usual now that four-year starting point guard Alex Bentley is gone, along with fellow starters Mia Nickson and Nikki Greene. With Bentley gone, Lucas is likely to see more action at point guard than in previous years.
"More than ever, I'm going to see a lot of pressure," she said. "It's something I've become pretty accustomed to. I've been working on handling pressure, being clutch, those kind of things."
As for Taylor, who averaged 7.0 points, 3.2 assists and 2.4 steals per game in her first season after transferring from Maryland, Washington said she's even expecting bigger things. "She has a lot more confidence, she has a lot more [awareness] of how to run the team and what we're looking for. Last year, with her and Alex on the court at the same time, Alex's voice was heard a lot, and Dara kind of played off of Alex. This year, she's gonna be the voice of the team on the court. She's got to be that vocal point guard, and she's been doing that so much already. I'm really confident in her ability to lead the team."
The other returnees are centers Candice Agee and Tori Waldner and forwards Ariel Edwards and Talia East. Agee is coming off a stint with the U19 World Championship team, which won the gold medal this past summer at the FIBA Americas Championship. The former McDonald's High School All-American played sparingly as a freshman, averaging 2.0 points and 1.8 rebounds, but she will likely have a much bigger role this coming season. Said Washington, "She's in much better shape, and I think she's playing with a higher level of confidence than she was at this point last year."
Penn State's seven-member freshman class, which was ranked 14th in the country by ESPN/HoopGurlz, includes two guards (Keke Sevillian and Lindsey Spann), one center (Infiniti Alston), one power forward (Alex Harris) and three swing players (Kaliyah Mitchell, Peyton Whitted and Jenny DeGraaf). Spann, a point guard from Laurel, Md., won't play this year due to a knee injury she suffered during the summer. Nor will Sierra Moore, the lone transfer in this year's contingent of newcomers. A guard from Hanover, Pa., Moore left Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse Duke to join the Lady Lions and will sit out this coming season before becoming eligible in 2014-15.
Lucas said the newcomers have brought "tremendous energy" to the team's practices. "These girls get after it," she said. "They come in here and they get loud. They push themselves really, really hard. It's probably the hardest-working group of freshmen I've ever been around."
They will need to be quick studies if the Lady Lions are to keep extending their streak of home victories, which stands at 20 in a row going into the season, third-best in the country. That's because the team's nonconference schedule is loaded with quality opponents. Connecticut's first visit to Penn State since 1983 is, of course, the headliner, with the perennial national championship contenders set to visit the Bryce Jordan Center on Nov. 17. The Lady Lions are also set to welcome Notre Dame (Dec. 4) and Texas A&M (Dec. 15) before launching their Big Ten season Jan. 5 at Iowa.
Washington described the Lady Lions' arduous nonconference schedule as "where we want to be."
"We want to be a program that plays the best teams in the country, not just the best teams in our area," she said. "We want to play UConn, we want to play Tennessee, we want to play Stanford. We're excited about playing Notre Dame. We want to be one of those programs that plays against the marquee talent, so I don't expect our schedule [to vary] from year to year in terms of competitiveness. We want to vary it up and get different teams in here, but we like being tested. I think that's how you grow your program, when you're testing yourselves against the nation's best."
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