Nov. 3, 2009

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — She doesn’t feel old, exactly. She’s only 21, after all, and looks younger.

But Monica Wright is entering her fourth season as a starting guard on the women’s basketball team at UVa. Many of the players with whom she’s shared the court at John Paul Jones Arena have moved on, and and when she looks around at her 2009-10 teammates, she sees five freshmen and four sophomores.

Paulisha Kellum and Jayna Hartig enrolled at the University in 2006, as did Wright, but they’re classified as redshirt juniors. The only senior on Debbie Ryan’s roster?

No. 22. Everybody’s All-American.

“It definitely does feel weird,” Wright said. “I’m just holding myself to a different standard now, because I am the one that everybody’s probably going to look to, to set the tone during practice, during games, in the meetings.

“So I do feel — I don’t want to say like an old person — but just the team leader in general. It’s not pressure. It’s just a lot more focus on my part, and a lot more commitment … I don’t want to look back and say, ‘Oh, I should have done this.’ I definitely want to jump on it.”

The preseason choice as ACC player of the year, the 5-11 Wright is coming off a season in which she averaged a league-best 20.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.8 steals.

She was the ACC rookie of the year in 2006-07 and has steadily raised her game since that first season. On Tuesday, The Associated Press named Wright to its preseason All-America team.

Wright was a McDonald’s All-American as a 12th-grader at Forest Park High in Woodbridge, so it’s no surprise that she’s blossomed into a college star. Still, UVa coach Debbie Ryan said, Wright has exceeded expectations.

“She’s had a great career, basketball-wise, but even more so, she’s just such a great person,” Wright said.

“She’s got the off-the-floor leadership skills, she’s got the on-the-floor leadership skills, she’s got impeccable character. Kids just come in wanting to follow her, and that makes things a lot easier. Whereas some players will come in thinking they’re great, Monica came in like an open book, saying, ‘Make me better.’ That’s what’s really made her what she is today.”

The assistant coach who led UVa’s recruitment of Wright was Tim Taylor, who first saw her play when she was an eighth-grader. This is the first season, however, that Taylor will actually coach her.

He left Ryan’s staff after the 2004-05 season and spent the next four years coaching high school basketball in Central Virginia. Taylor returned to UVa in June as Ryan’s associate head coach.

From afar, he followed Wright’s career closely and “watched her grow as a player and a person,” Taylor said. “I’ve been blessed to come back and coach her at least one year.”

Taylor, Wright said, is “like family.” She doesn’t go back as far with the team’s other new assistant — former UVa great Wendy Palmer — but they’ve already formed a strong bond.

“She’s been where we’ve been, and just having her here is amazing,” Wright said.

Palmer spent more than a decade in the WNBA after starring for Ryan at UVa, and that’s a path Wright plans on following, too.

“So basically I’m just picking her brain right now,” Wright said. “I’m just sucking up all the knowledge. Every time I have a question, I go straight to her. And she gives it to me direct. There’s no sugar-coating anything. She’ll say, ‘This is what you’re going to need to get to the next level. I’m not going to lie to you.'”

Wright enters her senior season a more complete player after a summer in which she worked long hours to polish her game.

“It’s just the small things,” he said. “I feel like it’s always those 1-percents that can make the biggest change in your game. At this point, being a college athlete, you’re not going to make a drastic change. You’re not going to be a totally new player in one season, so you definitely have to fine-tune. You have to play to your strengths, but you definitely have to get better at what you know your weaknesses are.”

As a junior, Wright led the Wahoos with 104 assists, but she also had a team-high 129 turnovers. She made a team-high 37 3-pointers but shot only 28.5 percent from beyond the arc.

“I would say my 3-point range is something that I’ve definitely focused on,” she said, “just to make myself a well-rounded player, and that’s something I definitely to need to be able to successful at the next level.”

She knows what to expect this season: the undivided attention of every opponent. A season ago, opponents also had to worry about Lyndra Littles (19.9 ppg) and Aisha Mohammed (12.8 points, 10.1 rebounds). Both are gone, replaced by promising but unproven players.

“I think Monica’s role will change a little bit,” Ryan said, “in that she has to be sure that these young kids develop. In order to help them develop, she’s going to have to at times make sure she’s putting them in position to score and be somebody who elevates their level of play through her level of play.”

Wright said: “You want to definitely be prepared. That’s the biggest thing in trying to be a winner: being prepared. And when we play games where other teams are focusing on me, the best thing to do is be prepared for it, get other people involved early, and then play from there.”

Wright, whose parents, Garry and Lynette, were in the Air Force, was born in San Antonio, Texas. Her father is a former football player at Lamar University. She has one sibling — older brother Gerard — who graduated from Texas A&M and now works in Raleigh, N.C.

After Wright was born, the family moved to New York and then to Germany, where her father was stationed, and then to D.C. before settling in Woodbridge.

She chose UVa over Maryland and North Carolina because, Wright recalled, she “liked the personality of the women’s basketball players here, the family aspect of the program. The fact that we were more than just basketball players. We had a community personality. We had something to do with academics. We had involvement in a bunch of different realms, rather than just being basketball players.”

Indeed, her coaches say, it’s how Wright carries herself off the court that makes her so special.

“She’s a better person than she is a player,” Taylor said, “and that’s saying a lot.”

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