By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — They entered the UVa women’s basketball program when Debbie Ryan was head coach. They’ve been through many changes since then, and when they speak now, they do so with voices of experience.
“We’re kind of old ladies now,” Ataira Franklin said, smiling.
Seated next to Franklin after a Monday morning workout at John Paul Jones Arena were Lexie Gerson and Kelsey Wolfe. They form the senior class of a Virginia team that also includes two juniors, four freshmen, a redshirt freshmen and two sophomores.
“The fact that we have experience and have played in big games, I think that’ll be helpful for the younger kids,” Franklin said, “because they’re going to need to give us a lot.”
Each of the seniors is listed as a guard, though their skill sets differ noticeably. The 5-11 Gerson is a defensive wizard who’s a study in perpetual motion on the court. The 5-10 Wolfe is a heady player with one of the team’s most accurate outside shots.
The 5-11 Franklin, a gifted defender, is also the Cavaliers’ top offensive threat. She averaged 14.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists and made the All-ACC team last season.
Equally important, Virginia coach Joanne Boyle said, are the seniors’ contributions off the court.
“They want to lead,” said Boyle, whose team begins practice for the coming season in about three weeks.
Virginia opens the season Nov. 8 against JMU in Harrisonburg. The home opener comes three nights later against High Point at JPJ.
In 2011-12, the Wahoos’ first season under Boyle, they finished 25-11 and advanced to the WNIT quarterfinals. Virginia’s record dropped to 16-14 last season, in part because of a frustrating string of injuries.
Gerson never suited up for the `Hoos in 2012-13, taking a medical redshirt. Wolfe, the team’s second-leading scorer (10.6 ppg), tore her right anterior cruciate ligament Feb. 7 and missed UVa’s final five games. Another guard, freshman Raeshaun Gaffney, struggled with a stress fracture in her shin and was never healthy enough to play in 2012-13.
After the season ended, Boyle said, the team met and “talked about why we fell short, and one of those reasons, obviously, was we were injured and we didn’t have depth. But I also thought we were really struggling with defining what leadership for our team meant.
“I think it was right after the last game, or the next day, that I went in and said, `This is never going to happen to us again.’ ”
Franklin, Wolfe and Gerson were told last spring that they would be captains in 2013-14, and “they’ve embraced it,” Boyle said. “I’ve given them a lot of responsibility throughout the summer to see if they can handle it, and they’ve done a great job.
“A lot of kids want to lead. They just don’t know how, and I feel like this group wants it and they’re really good at it.”
Each has overcome adversity during her college career. Franklin, who’s from Bowie, Md., has had three arthroscopic surgeries on her right knee since enrolling at UVa in 2010, the most recent in April. That limited her participation in summer workouts.
“I have a lot of miles on my knees,” Franklin said, “so we’re taking things slow.” Still, she said, her knee “feels better than it has in the past. It’s a lot stronger than it has been.”
For Wolfe, who’s from Germantown, Md., her knee injury marred a season in which she was playing a leading role for the Cavaliers. Her rehab has gone well, and she expects to be cleared to play by the start of the season. But it’s been tough, Wolfe said, “just getting your wind back, getting in game shape, basketball shape, and putting trust into that leg and that knee, that it is fixed.”
Gerson, who enrolled at UVa in 2009, expected her college career to end last season. But she developed hip problems that eventually required two operations — the first, last September, on her right side, and the second, two months later, on the left. By redshirting, Gerson, who’s from Fort Washington, Pa., was able to return for a fifth year at Virginia.
“It’s just kind of crazy to think about,” she said. “I could be anywhere else right now. But I think I was supposed to be here with this team, and I’m really honored to be back.”
As a junior in 2011-12, Gerson led the `Hoos in steals (113) and averaged 9.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists. To watch her teammates struggle without her last season “was very difficult,” Gerson said, “but I took as much as I could from that year, and it’s always good to see a different perspective.”
Gerson and Franklin are the team’s most versatile defenders, Boyle said, and they can play multiple positions. “There were so many times we couldn’t run our 1-3-1,” Boyle said, “because we didn’t have Lexie there. Just having one of our best players in that defense out really, really limited us.”
Franklin and Wolfe are on track to earn bachelor’s degrees in May. Franklin majors in studio art, with a concentration in photography. Wolfe is a kinesiology major.
Gerson is enrolled in UVa’s Curry School of Education, studying college athletics administration. She earned her bachelor’s last spring in the Women, Gender and Sexuality interdisciplinary program.
“I feel really old,” Gerson said, smiling. “I mean, I felt that way last year, too, but I think more this year it’s really appreciating just being able to play again and really savoring this last year and making it exactly what we believe it’s going to be.”
In 2009-10, Gerson’s freshman season, Virginia advanced to the NCAA tournament. None of her teammates has played in the NCAAs.
“That’s something we definitely want to experience,” Franklin said, “and something that we definitely believe we can accomplish this year.”
This will be a perimeter-oriented team. UVa’s tallest players, juniors Sarah Beth Barnette and Sarah Imovbioh, are listed at 6-2, and the first-year class includes 6-1 forwards Amanda Fioravanti and Sydney Umeri. The other Cavaliers are 5-11 or shorter.
Even so, Franklin said, “I think we’re extremely talented. I think what we lack in height we make up for in various other areas.”
The future looks promising for Boyle’s program. For the seniors, though, this is their final chapter of their UVa experience, and they have no time to waste.
“I hear them in off-court conversations saying, `I want to be in the NCAA tournament before I graduate. That is my goal. We are not going to settle for anything less,’ ” Boyle said. “And so I think the underclassmen also want that for them, and they’re really working hard to help not only themselves but their seniors achieve that before they leave.”