By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When she was hired as UVa women’s basketball coach in April, Joanne Boyle thought she’d have a minimum of 13 scholarship players available for duty in 2011-12, at least one of whom would be a freshman.
Five months later, Boyle has only 10 scholarship players eligible this season, and all were part of the Cavaliers’ program in 2010-11.
In July, the Edwards twins, Whitny and Britny, transferred from UVa to East Carolina, where their father starred in hoops. Then, this month, the NCAA ruled that Sarah Imovbioh, a 6-2 freshman from Nigeria, was ineligible to play or practice for the Wahoos in 2011-12, though she remains enrolled at the University. Morever, redshirt sophomore post player Erinn Thompson continues to battle injury problems.
This is not an ideal situation for Boyle, who came to UVa from the University of California, but she’s not wasting time feeling sorry for herself. Starting Friday, Boyle and her assistants will be able to practice with the entire team two hours a week, and she’s focused on the future. Practice officially starts Oct. 2 for the ‘Hoos.
“I don’t think you can dwell on the past,” Boyle said last week at John Paul Jones Arena. “You gotta control what you can control. We have a healthy 10, or a healthy nine, and that’s what we have to work with. So we just stay focused on that and getting those girls better and getting that team to really develop an identity and a chemistry. If they buy in and they practice well, I think we can surprise some people.”
Sarah Beth Barnette, a transfer from the University of Kentucky, can practice with the team this season, but she won’t be eligible to play until 2012-13.
This is not the first time Boyle has been part of a short-handed team. Before her first head coaching job, at the University of Richmond, Boyle was an assistant at Duke, her alma mater.
In 2002, the Blue Devils “went to the Final Four with eight kids,” Boyle said. “We had two players transfer at Christmastime, and it just brought the team closer together. We were able to kind of withstand injuries, and we really stayed out of foul trouble, and we limited practice minutes on the floor and didn’t wear them out too much during the ACC season.
“We were just a very cohesive group. Everybody got to play. That was a big factor, and chemistry was great, because everybody knew that they were going to have a big piece of it. It was one of my funnest teams to coach, just because of the chemistry on that team.”
The downside to not having a full complement of players is clear.
“They can get worn out,” Boyle said. “You’re probably not going to be able to do a lot of the things you want to do. We want to be a pressing group, and we want to be an up-in-your-face, man-to-man team, and we’ll probably end up having to play some zone. Obviously, you can still be very aggressive in a zone, but we’re going to have to pick and choose our times to be aggressive.”
In 2010-11, their 34th and final season under Hall of Fame coach Debbie Ryan, the ‘Hoos finished 19-16 after losing in the WNIT quarterfinals.
From that team, Virginia returns its top four scorers: senior guard Ariana Moorer (9.7 ppg), sophomore guard Ataira Franklin (9.4), senior forward Chelsea Shine (9.0) and junior guard China Crosby (7.1).
Moorer, who led UVa with 101 assists, was named the ACC’s sixth player of the year in 2010-11, and the 5-11 Franklin made the conference’s all-freshman team.
In small-group workouts this fall, Franklin has shown “unbelievable potential as a leader and, obviously, as a player,” Boyle said. “I like her length, and she sometimes can be a tough mismatch for people. She shot the ball really well last year, from behind the [3-point line]. We’re maybe going to try to use her in some different situations, as a post-up guard a little bit. But again, I think she’s got a lion’s heart.
Crosby, a McDonald’s All-American as a high school senior, has been slowed by knee problems during her college career, and keeping her healthy is one of the coaching staff’s top priorities.
“Not wearing her out,” Boyle said, “because she’s got a slight frame. But of anybody, I feel like she’s a great vocal leader. I mean, a great vocal leader. She’s really competitive. She doesn’t quit in things, and she goes hard on every possession. I think she’s really coachable, too. She’s been really receptive [to feedback], and we’ll get on her about things. She wants us to be good, and she believes in the staff.”
The other returning players are Thompson, sophomore guard Kelsey Wolfe, sophomore forward Jazmin Pitts, junior guard Lexie Gerson, junior forward Telia McCall and junior center Simone Egwu, the Cavaliers’ top rebounder (5.2 per game) last season.
Wolfe averaged only 1.4 points as a freshman, but Boyle expects her to play a larger role on the team this season.
“Kelsey got in really good shape over the summer,” Boyle said. “She really kind of changed her body, and she’s shooting the ball really, really well.”
The 6-1 McCall, like her teammates, needs to become more consistent, Boyle said. As a freshman, McCall pulled down 20 rebounds in a game against North Carolina, so her talent is undeniable. Still, she averaged only 4.2 points and 3.4 boards as a sophomore.
“She’s a spark, because she is an athlete, so she can get the rebound that other people can’t get,” Boyle said. “We’ve just got to find a role for her.”
Boyle and her assistant coaches — Kim McNeill, Cory McNeill and Katie O’Connor — have stressed fundamentals during fall workouts. The Cavaliers averaged 17.3 turnovers per game last season, and Boyle expects her team to take better care of the ball. That will take time, but she’s been pleased with the players’ response to the staff’s message.
“For the most part, they come to practice with a lot of energy,” Boyle said. “They feel like there’s a clean slate and they have to prove themselves to a new coaching staff, so the door’s wide open. They’ve been bringing it every day. They’ve been asked to work really hard, and I don’t know that some of them knew what that was going to look like, and now they do. At times they’re a little overwhelmed, but they also have completely bought into it.”
The NCAA allows each Division I women’s team to carry 15 scholarship players. With Shine and Moorer departing after this season, Boyle has ample playing time to offer recruits as UVa looks to strengthen its roster.
“We need to add some athleticism,” Boyle said. “Sarah Imovbioh is a perfect example of the type of athlete you want on this team. I want to get longer on the wing, and I want to get more speed and get a little bit more physical. Bigger, stronger, faster. We have some skilled kids, but we have to add that other element.”