Air Force Women's Basketball Season Outlook
Optimism abounds as the Air Force women's basketball team gets set for its second season under head coach Ardie McInelly and her staff. Although the team finished the 2001-02 season with a disappointing record, expectations remain high.
McInelly, who came to the Academy last season after five years of coaching at Idaho State, has vowed to continue to bring excitement to the struggling program. Her aura of confidence and positive energy make even the most cynical fan excited about the prospects for the upcoming season.
"We know we can win," McInelly said. "I know it and my assistants know it, but most importantly the players know it. They are in the gym and the weight room every day. They believe in themselves and are confident they will win."
Statistically, the Falcons improved in nearly every category. One of the most notable improvements was scoring offense, as the Falcons scored seven more points per game than the previous year. Their defense also improved as the Falcons led the league in steals, but they continue to work towards surrendering fewer points per game and committing fewer turnovers than in 2001-02. The Falcons did decrease their scoring margin, closing the gap on their opponents by more than five points per game, keeping nearly every game close, which gives the team a reason to be excited about the prospects for the upcoming season.
The coach is striving to finish in the top half of the Mountain West, a lofty goal in such a competitive conference. But her enthusiasm and desire to win are contagious and she is instilling that same confidence in the players. Although the Falcons have had limited success in the past few seasons in terms of victories, the coaches have high expectations of the players. They expect them to work hard and be committed to doing what it takes to win.
"This is a Division I school," McInelly said. "We need people on the team who will be totally committed to basketball, to academics and to the Air Force. We have the talent and the tools to be successful, and I expect the players to be successful. We proved last year we could compete in this league. We kept nearly every game close. This year, we need to make the next step and not just stay close, but put teams away."
McInelly admits the challenge to make Air Force more competitive hasn't been easy. And although she has seen immediate improvements in the players, the necessary changes will take place over a longer period of time than just one season.
Returning as assistant coaches are assistants Holly Togiai and Angela Munger, who are each in their second season with Air Force. Lisa Robinson, a former assistant at Wyoming, joins the staff as the associate head coach. She has nearly two decades of collegiate coaching experience and makes a tremendous addition to an already solid coaching staff.
"It's a tremendous opportunity to come to the Academy and work with so many quality people," Robinson said. "I am excited about being involved in the building of a winning program as well as the challenge of recruiting strong players to the Academy."
The coaching staff will build the team from a solid mix of returning players and newcomers. Although the team lost five players to graduation, including three starters, an excellent coaching staff, valuable experience gained last year by the players, solid off-season workouts and several athletic newcomers will combine to give the Falcons a legitimate chance of finishing in the top half of the conference.
Honorable mention all-conference selection Latoya Howell returns as the team's starting point guard. Howell had a standout freshman season, leading the conference and setting a new Air Force Division I record with 90 steals. She was second on the team in scoring with 10.0 points per game and was the league's leading scorer among freshmen. She also finished the season just one assist shy of tying the Academy record (Div. I).
"Howell is one of the best point guards in the Mountain West," McInelly said. "Now that she's had a season to learn our system and gain experience, I expect her to only be better this year."
Two players will be challenging Howell for playing time. Sophomore (C3C) Jennifer Roesch was called up from junior varsity midway through the season as Howell's backup. She has versatility and is not limited to playing point guard.
Freshman (C4C) Dana Pounds will also provide depth at the position. Pounds (Lexington, Ky.) is a small player, similar in build to Howell. She has great outside range is an excellent shooter.
"We have much more depth this year at the point guard position," Robinson said. "We are still a little inexperienced, but our players have the athleticism to compensate."
C2C (Jr.) Shawna Neff did a solid job last season as sophomores. Jackson was a starter and led the team in rebounding (5.0 rpg) and scoring (10.5 ppg). She was an honorable mention all-conference selection. Neff averaged 16.4 minutes per game off the bench and was third on the team in scoring with 6.9 points per game.
"Shawna can get hot at any time and hit big shots," McInelly said. "She spent a lot of time in the summer trying to improve her game and she will be vying for a starting position."
Adding depth to the position is sophomore Gwen Grove, who played in every game last year, gaining valuable experience as freshman. Grove is expected to contribute to the Falcons scoring attack.
"Gwen has one of the quickest shots and has great three-point range," McInelly said. "She made several big shots for us last season."
Several newcomers will also be competing for a role on the team. Sophomores Laurie Rees and Melissa Hueman spent last season gaining experience on the junior varsity squad. Both have been working hard in the off season in an attempt to crack the varsity lineup this season.
Freshmen Nikki Goss and Ashley Housley also look to earn a spot on the team. Goss was a standout prep player at Stockdale High School in Bakersfield, Calif. She is a good athlete with decent size. She has a "scorer's mentality" and will be a threat offensively. Housley, a 5-8 guard out of San Clemente, Calif., is a standout defender who is strong and athletic.
C2C Amoy Jackson will miss the 2002-03 season due to a suspension.
Wendy Stillman is the only senior (C1C) on the team and the post player with the most experience. She started 10 games last season and was the team's fourth-highest scorer with 4.7 points per game.
"Wendy has good touch around the basket and can step out to the perimeter and take that shot as well," McInelly said.
Junior Janea Childress and sophomore Emily Gross will also contribute down low. Childress spent a lot of time in the weight room in the off season to increase her size and strength so that she will be a more durable force in the middle. Gross joined the team late after playing volleyball for the Academy in the fall. She played in 24 games, gaining valuable experience, but the late start slowed her development. This year, she is focusing solely on basketball and her physical presence will help the team.
Newcomers Briana Thomas, Brittany Dahlstrom and Ali Butler will also compete for playing time. Briana is a very physical player out of Grass Valley, Calif. Although she is only 5-10 in height, she compensates through her strength and physical play. Dahlstrom is a 6-foot forward out of Sunnyside, Wash., who had a tremendous prep career at Sunnyside High School. Butler, from Longmont, Colo., is the team's tallest player at 6-foot-2. She has a good outside shot and strong ball handling skills.
Overall, there is nothing but optimism for the upcoming basketball season. The players have had a year to learn the coaches new offensive and defensive schemes. The Falcons may not be expected to challenge for a national title this season, but they do expect to win games and climb out of the conference cellar.