After last season's impressive run in the NCAA tournament and with the return of senior All-American and MWC MVP Erin Thorn, senior forward Jennifer Leitner, plus sophomore starter Danielle Cheesman, the Cougar team looks to continue its winning ways in 2002-03.
This year's team boasts one of the best recruiting classes the program has ever had and it returns a very experienced list of letterwinners. The BYU basketball staff is expecting a lot from its players who had fabulous performances during last year's March Madness.
"I am very happy about what we accomplished last year and hopefully we will be able to work from that and reach our potential this season," said head coach Jeff Judkins. "We want to get out there, set a great foundation for our players and our team early on. I am excited about how we ended the season last year and to see that through hard work and dedication we can accomplish the goals we have set," added coach Judkins.
BYU's women's basketball team under the helm of first-year coach Jeff Judkins finished the 2001-02 season on fire, winning the MWC tournament and advancing to the "Sweet Sixteen" of the NCAA women's basketball national tournament. The 90-52 win over Florida in first round action was the first win in post season in the NCAA tournament for the Cougar women. After that impressive win, BYU became the "Cinderella" team of the tournament, playing impressive basketball and receiving substantial media attention.
With the 75-68 win over East Region hosts Iowa State, the press converged on Ames, Iowa to follow the BYU team onto its next opponent, the Tennessee Lady Vols. The Cougars played a very solid first half staying close to the Lady Vols, down by just five at the break. Poor shooting by BYU in the second half unfortunately ended the Cougars run in the tournament, falling to Tennessee 57-68.
The Cougar Players
All that post season play is expected to add confidence and experience to a very strong core of players in 2002-03. The Cougar team will be led by two-time All-American and MWC MVP Erin Thorn along with All-Tournament honoree senior forward Jennifer Leitner. Sophomore forward Danielle Cheesman is the third starter back for another season with the BYU team. Cheesman was the team's second leading rebounder grabbing an average of 4.4 boards per game.
Coach Judkins will be looking to these top returning players to provide strong play and leadership as he begins his second season with the women's team. "I am very excited to have Erin, Jennifer and Danielle all returning to our starting lineup this year. They really came on last year. Each of them improved a lot of things in their game to make our team better. Their leadership and experience will truly pay off this year, as all three of them have the chance to receive All-Americans accolades for us," he comments.
This season's roster will see the return of MWC's 1999-2000 Newcomer of the Year Julie Whetten Sullivan who redshirted last year. Joining her at the guard position will be Maria Goldsmith Chiara from Hamilton, New Zealand who played two season at Casper Junior College before serving an 18-month LDS mission to Florida.
"Both of these players have an opportunity to play a lot of minutes," says Judkins. "Julie coming off having a baby and taking her redshirt year, has a lot of desire to get back to the business of winning games. Maria, coming from her mission in Florida, really has that competitive drive and will be a great asset to the team. The two have a lot of ability and talent, so it should be a great opportunity for both of them."
Senior guard Amy Lewis will finish her college career joined by her twin sister Angie Gatten who redshirted last year. The sister duo walked on the Cougar roster last year. Lewis, who played in 18 games, gained valuable experience and is very familiar with the Cougar offense.
The very experienced BYU roster will also see the return of four other letterwinners, seniors Brittany Larson and Lisa Hansen. Kali Taylor a sophomore guard from Lyman, Utah who averaged over five minutes of playing time in 28 games her freshman season rounds out the Cougar letterwinners list.
Utah high school standouts Jen Overdiek and Nancy Seljaas will also be part of the roster this year. The two high school graduates will be joined by Kanab, Utah native Ashleigh Chamberlain who joins the team after two seasons at Utah Valley State College. Kristen Crockett Kozlowski another transfer on this year's team. She played one season at Boise State.
"I am very excited about a lot of the new players and the other returning players who didn't get a lot of time last year but worked hard to get themselves ready for this year,'" comments coach Judkins. "Lisa, Kali and Britt have the advantage that they got to learn my system for a full year and will now be able to do what they need to do to help the team improve." Coach Judkins is confident the new core of players will pick up his system quickly. "Our new group of players are extremely athletic and know the game of basketball very well. I know they'll pick up our game plan quickly."
The Cougar Schedule
This year's Cougar schedule is one of the toughest yet. The 2002-03 will give BYU the opportunity to play seven teams that were in last year's NCAA tournament. The University of Texas and Weber State, two of the seven will play at the Marriott Center. On December 3, BYU will travel to Cedar City to battle Southern Utah, another NCAA post season participant.
"We scheduled a very tough pre-season, as we did last year," says Judkins. "My staff and I truly believe that we need to schedule the best games we can to help our team step up and improve each time we take the court. That will help us to keep things hot during the conference schedule and be fortunate enough to go to post-season play again."
Right before the team opens MWC play, the Cougars will take on UCSB in Santa Barbara on January 2, a team who also went into post season play last year. The remaining three teams are members of the MWC , New Mexico, UNLV and Colorado State.
Two new opponents are on the schedule this year as BYU travels to George Washington University and to North Carolina State both in December. That month the Cougar team will play a grueling road schedule that has the team away from home for five straight games in a three-week period. This tough road schedule is similar to last year's in which BYU tallied an impressive 14-5 overall record, one of the keys to the team's success in post-season play.
The team returns to the Marriott Center for two games in late December, hosting the University of Arizona on Dec. 21 and Montana State on Dec. 30.
The Mountain West Conference race begins on Jan. 16 for BYU as they open league play at home hosting CSU and Wyoming on Jan. 16 and 18. The team will end conference play on the road, at Air Force on March 6 and at New Mexico on March 8.
"There is no question that Colorado State and New Mexico will be tough once again. A lot of the conference teams have returning players. Hopefully we will be able to play as well as we did last year at the end of the year and pick apart some of the things they do best," adds BYU head coach Jeff Judkins. "I don't know about how things will go with new coaches in the league, but it will be a great challenge for our team to learn and adapt to those things. It will be a great and tough conference schedule, as there were four teams going to the NCAA tournament last year."
BYU is expected to be one of the top contenders in the conference and will battle tough to stay atop league play throughout the season. This year's MWC Tournament will once again be held at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, beginning March 12. The Cougars had a great run in last year's tournament are are planning to make it two in a row in 2003.
With an experienced roster, one of the best recruiting classes the basketball program has ever had and some impressive post-season play by the Cougars, the upcoming 2002-03 year should provide BYU women's basketball fans a great and exciting season of hoops action both at home and on the road.