June 18, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — As coaches are wise to do, Joanne Boyle regularly updates a list of potential assistants, but she didn’t expect to have to consult it this year. That changed when Ashley Earley recently left the UVa women’s basketball staff and returned to her alma mater, Vanderbilt.

Earley spent only one year at Virginia, where she replaced Katie O’Connor after the 2011-12 season. O’Connor left UVa after one year to return to the University of Kansas.

At Vanderbilt, Earley replaced Vicky Picott, who resigned unexpectedly.

“I think it was very difficult [for Earley to leave Virginia],” said Boyle, who’s heading into her third season as the Cavaliers’ head coach.

“She was just getting her feet wet. She had a lot of responsibility. She knows that we’re trying to do something special. She wanted to be part of that. This kind of came out of the blue … I think ultimately [Vandy] might have been Ashley’s dream job, but it happened a lot sooner than she expected.”

Of the assistants Boyle hired in the spring of 2011 after coming to UVa from the University of California, Kim McNeill and her husband, Cory McNeill, remain on the staff.

“You want to build a team,” Boyle said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “It’s been great that people recognize us and people come after our assistants, but my thing is I need to keep some consistency for the girls. They need some consistency.”

Boyle is in no hurry to hire Earley’s replacement. “I’m taking my time, but I said to myself, `I’m going to shoot high. I’m going to shoot really high and see what happens,’ ” Boyle said. “I’m in the process of talking to those people.”

That’s not the only item on Boyle’s to-do list these days.

This marks the first year that Division I women’s hoops coaches are allowed to work with their players — two hours a week — while summer school is in session. All 12 of the players who’ll make up UVa’s 2013-14 roster have been training at JPJ: fifth-year senior Lexie Gerson, seniors Ataira Franklin and Kelsey Wolfe, juniors Sarah Beth Barnette and Sarah Imovbioh, sophomores Faith Randolph and Jaryn Garner, redshirt freshman Raeshaun Gaffney and newly arrived freshmen Breyana Mason, Tiffany Suarez, Amanda Fioravanti and Sydney Umeri. The players train six hours a week with Jeremy Anderson, the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach.

Jazmin Pitts, a reserve post player who would have been a senior in 2013-14, no longer is on the team. Pitts, who averaged 4.4 points and 2.5 rebounds, is planning to graduate from UVa in December, Boyle said.

Virginia’s coaches will be on the road recruiting for two periods next month — July 6-12 and July 23-29 — but that will leave considerable time for them to work with their players this summer. “Which I’m loving,” Boyle said.

The UVa men practice as a team for two hours each week during summer school. Boyle prefers to split her players into small groups and hold separate practice sessions for them. Her focus is fundamentals.

“We’ll have plenty of time to get in game stuff,” Boyle said. “I want to spend the summer getting our players better.”

Boyle likes the opportunity afforded women’s coaches under the new NCAA rules. “You just gotta be smart about how you use it,” she said. “I think it’s great to have access to your kids in the summer time, but I think as a coach when somebody gives you more access, you have to just be really smart and cognizant of their bodies, their time, the longevity of the season, all those things … Because I think your student-athletes need time away from you.”

Asked about her early impressions of the freshmen, Boyle smiled.

“They’re freshmen,” she said. “I think for any freshman that comes in to any university, it’s overwhelming at first: school and the pace and intensity and volume of what you’re doing, from the time you get up to the time you’re going to bed. You’re trying to figure it all out.”

For the newcomers, the summer sessions at JPJ will help them learn the terminology Boyle uses and how the Wahoos like to practice.

“We’ve only had them a week,” Boyle said. “Great attitudes, great kids, really coachable, they want to learn, they spend a lot of time in the gym on their own. They just want to get better. They’re going to be a good group to work with.”

The `Hoos, who finished 25-11 in Boyle’s first season, fell to 16-14 in 2012-13, in part because of a rash of serious injuries. Neither Gerson nor Gaffney was healthy enough to play last season: Gerson because of hip problems that needed surgery, Gaffney because of a stress fracture in her shin that eventually required an operation.

Wolfe, the team’s second-leading scorer (10.6) tore her right ACL against Maryland on Feb. 17 and missed Virginia’s final five games.

In 2011-12, the 5-11 Gerson averaged 9.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists, led the Cavaliers in steals (113) and was named to the ACC’s all-defensive team.

The `Hoos keenly felt her absence in 2012-13. “Her length, her defense, her leadership, her speed on the wing,” Boyle said. “She was another person to put the ball in the basket.”

UVa’s medical staff cleared Gerson on Monday for full participation. “Now, we’re not going to let her be full go [immediately],” Boyle said, “but she’s allowed to be introduced into contact, and we’ll gradually bring her back in full.

“But she’s doing great, and she’s been doing workouts with Jeremy. She’s done a 50-minute workout with him, so she’s really coming along. I think for her, she just lost some of that muscle memory, so it’s just getting back into the habit of that. Just reconnecting.”

Wolfe’s rehabilitation from reconstructive knee surgery is going well, Boyle said, and the 5-10 shooting guard is expected to start running in the next couple of weeks. “If everything goes well and she stays on track, she should be ready to start [practice] with us in October,” Boyle said.

Gaffney, a 5-8 guard whose father played basketball at the University of Minnesota, has not yet been cleared for full participation, Boyle said, but her workload is steadily increasing. Gaffney is expected to be “fully released in four to six weeks,” Boyle said.

For now, Gaffney is “on the court with us 30 minutes, twice a week,” Boyle said. “We’re allowed to do modified workouts with her.”

Virginia’s best player, Franklin, is also on the mend. Knee problems have slowed the 5-11 guard during her college career, but the arthroscopic surgery Franklin underwent after last season has her moving better than she has in years, according to Boyle.

Franklin, an All-ACC selection, averaged 14.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists last season.

The 2013-14 Cavaliers will be notable for their lack of size. The 6-2 Imovbioh, who averaged 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in 2012-13, her first season of college hoops, is the team’s only true post player, though the 6-1 Fioravanti is comfortable inside, too.

Only four players are taller than 5-11: Imovbioh, Fioravanti, the 6-1 Umeri and the 6-2 Barnette, who’s most effective on the perimeter.

“So we’re going to change some things,” Boyle said. “We’re looking at a new offense. We’re looking at more of a four-out, one-in [approach], not your two traditional posts, because Sydney and Sarah Beth, they can do a little work outside. But we add some athleticism, and we add some length with Tiffany and Sydney, so we’re going to be able to press a little more. With Lexie getting back, we’re going to be able to do more [defensively].”

UVa’s No. 1 point guard last season, China Crosby, was a senior. Mason, Gaffney and Suarez are likely to share the primary ballhandling duties this season, Boyle said.

Mason, like former Virginia great Monica Wright, is a graduate of Forest Park High School in Woodbridge. Mason broke Wright’s career scoring record at Forest Park and can run an offense, too.

“She’s a lot like the kid I had a Cal, Alexis Gray-Lawson,” Boyle said. “Gray-Lawson played point for me her senior year in college, and it was fantastic.”

In the offense Virginia is likely to run, some positions may be interchangeable, Boyle said, so this “team might look a little similar to the team we had when I was at Duke, when we ran two true point guards out there. We didn’t have a numbering system [for the different positions]. We said, ‘Just go. Play.’ ”

UVa must replace three players who started at least 23 games each in 2012-13: Crosby, Telia McCall and Simone Egwu. Among the returning players from whom Boyle expects significant improvement this season is Randolph.

A 5-10 guard from Good Counsel High in Maryland, Randolph averaged 20.8 minutes per game last season but shot only 26.3 percent from the floor (and 19.7 percent from 3-point range).

Randolph is a better shooter than she showed as a freshman, Boyle said. “Definitely. I think for Faith, it was just figuring [the college game] out and adjusting to a big platform and that big show. She didn’t see her minutes until later in the year, and I think she felt that she just had to score, so she was shooting anytime she was open, and not in a comfortable way, if that makes sense. She was shooting because we needed somebody to score, and she wasn’t afraid to.”

Fans who haven’t seen Randolph since the Cavaliers’ 2012-13 finale may not recognize her. She’s slimmer and fitter.

“She has transformed her body,” Boyle said. “She bought into the nutritionist in such a big way. She completely changed her body. She’s different. She’s a beast.”

As a freshman, Randolph “was a really tight athlete,” Boyle said. “She runs so much more relaxed now. It’s amazing what Jeremy has done with her in a year.”

Randolph has spent untold hours with Anderson in the weight room, with the McNeills on the court and with UVa’s sports nutritionists. “Faith has bought into being the total package as an athlete, and it shows,” Boyle said. “It really shows.”

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