Women's Basketball Looks Forward To 2003-04 Season
July 7, 2003
For the first time ever, the USC women's basketball roster will feature just as many new players as returning players.
Seven incoming freshmen will join seven returners, striking a perfect balance of youth and experience. With this blend, the 2003-04 squad looks to revive the great legacy and tradition of Women of Troy basketball.
Seventh-year head coach Chris Gobrecht, who has posted 410 wins in her 24 seasons as a collegiate coach, is optimistic about the upcoming season.
"I think the addition of seven players this season will solve a lot of the issues we had to deal with last year," said Gobrecht, whose staff has signed two top-10 recruiting classes in the last four years. "They will strengthen and deepen our roster, while complementing the talent of our returners. I'm looking forward to what this season holds."
Returning forward/center Ebony Hoffman (Harbor City, Calif.) - one of the most athletic and talented inside players in the collegiate ranks - highlights the 2003-04 lineup. Thanks to a combination of Hoffman's talent, the experience of three other returning starters and the added depth provided by the newcomers, this year's team has a new sense of direction and the motivation to erase the disappointment of last season.
"Last year we felt like we started with a lot of promise and I still think that we really had the potential for a break-through year," said Gobrecht, whose 2003 squad finished 14-17 overall and 8-10 in the Pac-10 to tie for fifth place. "But our biggest downfall was that we underestimated what was in front of us. We underestimated the difficulty of our schedule and we underestimated the impact that the game of musical guards had on our situation."
The 2003 schedule posed a great challenge from the start for a young Women of Troy squad. According to the WBCA's preseason nonconference strength of schedule rating, USC played the nation's second-toughest schedule last season, facing five ranked opponents, including three of the last four NCAA champions (Connecticut, Tennessee and Notre Dame).
Despite a strong start, consecutive meetings with top-ranked teams and frequent road trips (USC played six of its 10 nonconference games on the road) began to take its toll on an already thin Trojan roster, which had only nine players at the start of the year.
The Women of Troy went without guard Rometra Craig (Portola Valley, Calif.) for the first eight games, as she sat out the remainder of her transfer requirements. At midseason, guard Aisha Hollans was lost for three weeks after injuring her right knee. Then, shortly after Hollans' return, USC lost guard Jessica Cheeks (Los Angeles) who missed the season's last 10 games to "concentrate on priorities."
"We had to survive significant periods of time without three of our key players," said Gobrecht. "That kind of loss is bound to have some effect on the team. It was a very disruptive occurrence to constantly be moving our guards in and out. I think it definitely took its toll."
USC enjoyed glimpses of what could have been with an upset over fifth-ranked Stanford and a win over No. 25 Colorado State in the Preseason WNIT, but it was difficult to put together a string of wins.
"Looking back at last season, we had more big wins than we've ever had and we finished with the highest RPI rating (No. 72) since I've been here at USC," said Gobrecht. "We were close to being a great team, but some things just threw us. We were not capable of handling the difficulty of that schedule, in addition to the adversity we were faced with.
"Our goal in this program is to develop a great team and a great program. This year I believe we have what it takes. We have athletes who possess great talent and strong character. These are the type of athletes who will play exciting basketball, overcome adversity and start winning."
This season, opponents and fans will see an entirely new version of Women of Troy basketball.
With great success on the recruiting front last year, Gobrecht and her staff welcome the ninth-ranked incoming recruiting class of 2003 according to USA Today and Mike Flynn's Blue Star Report.
"This recruiting class is the best combination of talent and character we have ever brought into this program," said Gobrecht. "I know they will be prepared to fill in where they're needed and they'll challenge the other players from the start."
The newcomers will have to fill the gaps left behind by graduated guard/forward Erin Young and Hollans, who was dismissed from the team shortly after the conclusion of last season. Young's leadership on and off the court will be missed, while Hollans, a starting guard for the past three years, will leave a larger gap in the lineup. Returners will have to make up for the 12.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game Hollans contributed as a junior.
"It is going to be hard to replace Aisha in some aspects of the game," said Gobrecht. "She was a fantastic rebounding guard and we'll miss her on the boards.
"This season we need to focus on building a team that sticks together and is strong enough to handle the bumps in the road. We need strong team character and I believe we now have a group of athletes who have that."
In her fourth year at USC, Hoffman, a 6-foot-2 forward/center, will again be looked to for leadership on the court. A two-time All-Pac-10 first team selection and last year's regional All-American, for the past three years Hoffman has more than proved to Trojan fans that she belongs among the nation's elite.
"Despite the challenges we've faced, Ebony has steadily improved as a player the last three years," said Gobrecht. "She is our best shooter, our best defender and an All-American caliber athlete who has had to work hard to help get this team going."
As the team's go-to player, Hoffman enjoyed another outstanding season at USC in 2003. She averaged a team-leading 16.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game, while also posting 2.3 assists per outing and shooting 76.0 percent from the free throw line. Hoffman finished sixth in the Pac-10 in scoring, second in rebounding, third in steals, offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds, and fourth in blocked shots. Throughout the season, she posted a total of 12 double-doubles (second in the Pac-10 for a career total of 28), including a 21-point and 20-rebound performance against UCLA to become the first Trojan since Lisa Leslie to post a 20-20 double-double.
"People across the country have not had the opportunity to see just how good a player Ebony is because of the team's performance," said Gobrecht. "I hope that we will be able to showcase her talents better this year.
"All of our new additions will give us the opportunity to help take the pressure off of Ebony. This season is not going to be as much about her doing it for us, but instead, the team is going to work hard for her."
USC will field one of its youngest lineups in program history this season, including the most freshmen (seven) to ever compete on one squad (the Trojans had six freshmen listed on the rosters in 1996 and 1985).
In addition to four seniors, two juniors and one sophomore, newcomers Jamie Funn (Los Angeles), Markisha Lea (Riverside, Calif.), Eshaya Murphy (Van Nuys, Calif.), Chloé Kerr (Bolingbrook, Ill.), Allison Jaskowiak (Chesterfield, Mo.), Katie Henderson (Redmond, Wash.) and Jamie Hagiya (Torrance, Calif.), round out the 2003-04 Women of Troy lineup.
The class is be led by 6-foot-3 center Kerr, one of two players who will be looked to for much-needed depth in the post. A four-year letterwinner at Bolingbrook (Ill.) High, Kerr was ranked 33rd among the nation's 2003 senior class according to the All-Star Girls Report. She earned three consecutive Street & Smith All-America honorable mention honors and was named to the McDonald's All-American Top 100 as a senior.
"Chloé is the kind of player who knows how to get the maximum out of her God-given abilities," said Gobrecht. "She is an intense and intelligent team-minded player who is also willing to step up and be the one to make a difference. She has a well-developed shot and great arm reach, but more importantly, she's willing to work hard and she wants to win."
Lea, a 6-foot-1 center from Riverside (Calif.) King High, is the other top post player in this freshman class. As a Street & Smith All-American honorable mention pick, she dominated over the competition and led Riverside County in scoring as a senior (23.0 ppg). Lea, like the other newcomers, not only excelled on the court as a prep, but in the classroom as well. She was King's student body president in 2003.
"Markisha has a great attitude and will be very dangerous the day her game becomes as big as her personality," said Gobrecht. "She has the type of skills you can't coach. She's very quick to the ball and plays fearlessly."
A 5-foot-11 forward from Montclair Prep in Van Nuys, Murphy (who goes by the nickname of "Shay") finished among the CIF Southern Section's top 25 in scoring (7th, 23.5 ppg), rebounding (11th, 14.6 rpg) and steals (8th, 5.6 spg) in 2003. Among her many accolades, she was a two-time Street & Smith All-American honorable mention selection and two-time CIF Southern Section Division Player of the Year.
"In my opinion, Shay is physically as gifted a player as we've had at USC," said Gobrecht. "She has the tools to affect every part of the game, including offense, defense, rebounding and the transition game. She's a fun player to watch and she is just beginning to realize the depth of her abilities."
Funn, a 6-foot-2 forward from Los Angeles' Narbonne High, was a two-time Street & Smith All-American honorable mention selection as a prep. An athletic forward with a great reach, she will compete for playing time at the 3/4 positions.
"Jaime is the kind of player who will make you pay if you do not respect her," said Gobrecht. "She has a good head on her shoulders and I expect that she will get better and better with her experience here."
A 6-0 forward from Redmond (Wash.) High, Henderson is the third forward in the incoming class. A multi-sport athlete with good size and shooting abilities, she will have the opportunity to contribute off the bench for the Women of Troy.
"We see Katie as bringing the same qualities we lost with Erin Young," said Gobrecht. "She will be a tireless worker on behalf of her team and, with some experience under her belt, she will be ready to contribute on the court as well."
Jaskowiak, a 5-foot-11 guard/forward from Parkway West High in St. Louis, Mo., is capable of playing at the 2, 3 and 4 positions for the Women of Troy. An all-around athlete, she lettered in three sports and was named as one of the WBCA's Top 100 Senior Basketball Players of 2003. Like Lea, she was Parkway West's student body president as a senior.
"We are going to lean heavily on Allison for stability in our lineup," said Gobrecht. "She plays a very controlled game and is capable of playing multiple roles. She is a fundamentally sound player and a tireless worker."
Hagiya is a much-need 5-foot-4 point guard whose leadership capabilities and work ethic may give her an active role among this year's lineup. Hagiya's determination and skill more than make up for her size on the basketball court. As a senior at South Torrance High in Torrance, Calif., she led all Southern California prepsters with an 87.7 free throw percentage and finished second with a 63.5 three-point field goal percentage. Off the court, she also served as South Torrance student body president in 2003.
"We are very hopeful that Jamie will be able to solidify our lineup at the point guard position," said Gobrecht. "She is a team-minded player who gets the ball to the right people. Once she adapts to this level of play, she will be a great asset to the team."
It is no secret that the 2003-04 newcomers will play a large role in the success of this year's team, due to the limited experience shared by the six returners. With the exception of Hoffman and Cheeks, who are entering their fourth seasons, the remainder of the team shares seven years of experience at Troy.
"Our returners are still all very young," said Gobrecht. "But they all challenged themselves in the off-season and I anticipate that they will be much better ball players come the start of the season."
Next to Hoffman, Cheeks should be one of the team's go-to players this season, but she will be unable to join the team until the end of the fall semester (an extension of her 10-game hiatus from last season).
"Jessica is the kind of player who is capable of having a dramatic impact on the team and delivering in big games," said Gobrecht. "But she put herself in an unfortunate position and will have to wait until the start of conference play to contribute. Just like last season, it will be hard for us to get by without her, but we will need her to be prepared to play upon her return."
Last season, Cheeks averaged 8.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.0 steals per game as the team's starting point guard.
Craig, a 5-10 senior guard who transferred from Duke in 2002 and became eligible midway through last season, made a total of 23 starts in 2003 at the 1/2 positions. She averaged 13.4 points (ranked ninth in the Pac-10), 3.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.4 steals per game, while leading the team with 34 three-pointers (fourth in the Pac-10).
"Rometra has to step up for us as a senior," said Gobrecht. "She will be our most experienced guard at the start of the season and our best threat on the dribble penetration. She will be an excellent contributor for us as long as she steps up her game defensively."
Senior Tiffany Hicks (Lincoln, Neb.), a 2002 junior college transfer, is the only true returning point guard on this year's team. Last season she made 15 starts, including seven of the final eight games at the point, and averaged 2.0 points, 2.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
"Tiffany is a worker whose toughness, dependability and work ethic are very important to this team," said Gobrecht. "This year she has to continue to improve her outside shot and learn how to use her size to her advantage."
Playing mainly off the bench at both the shooting guard and small forward positions, sophomore Meghan Gnekow (Santa Ynez, Calif.) opened some eyes in 2003.
"I think Meghan surprised a lot of people last season with her size and ability," said Gobrecht. "She was there for some big games for us after she started to adjust to this level of play. The best part about Meghan is that she is always willing to try and is not afraid to give her best shot at practice or in a game. She has a great shot and this type of attitude will get her playing time this season as she continues to gain experience."
Junior Rachel Woodward (Murrieta, Calif.) has made significant contributions in her first two seasons. A 2002 Pac-10 All-Freshman team selection, Woodward resumed her starting role as a sophomore, but found the second season to be tougher than the first.
"Rachel had a tough time last year as a sophomore, but she is a very talented player and I expect her to come back prepared for the challenges this year," said Gobrecht. "In addition to fighting through a bit of a sophomore slump, we also forced her to switch positions numerous times as our lineup changed. With all of this added depth this season, the pressure is now off of her so she can relax and play her game. She is an outstanding player who can contribute a lot to this team."
Woodward's numbers were down in 2003, but far from the average "slump". With 29 starts in 31 games played, she averaged 10.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game.
Junior center Kim Gipson (Westchester, Calif.) completes the 2004 lineup for the Trojans. At 6-foot-5, she is the tallest player on the Women of Troy roster. She is a fast and mobile player who can run the court well, but struggled last season while trying to establish a powerful presence in the post.
"Kim is a player with great potential who makes such a difference for us under the basket," said Gobrecht. "She just has not been able to feel comfortable get out on the court for us. We are just waiting to reach her potential and then she will become a major contributor."
"Unfortunately there will be no easing up on our schedule this season because we have to play everyone all over again," said Gobrecht, whose schedules the last three seasons have been rated among the Top 25 nationally. "But I am not concerned because our players now know what to expect. Before last season we did not know just how high the bar had been set. All of our players learned a tremendous amount from that experience and it has paid off in their off-season training."
The Women of Troy open the 2003-04 season on the road when they face New Mexico at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., on Nov. 21. Then the team will head to the Junkaroo Jam Grand Bahama Tournament on Nov. 28-29. USC will celebrate Thanksgiving in the four-team tournament, which includes Minnesota, Texas A&M and Seton Hall.
Though they'll face the same tough opponents as last year, at least the month of December won't be as difficult for the Trojans this time around. USC will host four of its five final nonconference games at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, including match-ups with defending national champion Connecticut on Dec. 7, San Diego on Dec. 13, SMU on Dec. 17 and Colorado on Dec. 20, before traveling to Notre Dame on Dec. 22.
The 2004 Pac-10 regular-season schedule will start and end against crosstown rival UCLA on Dec. 28 at the Sports Arena and on Feb. 29 at Pauley Pavilion. On March 5-8, the Women of Troy will compete at the third-annual State Farm Pac-10 Women's Basketball Tournament in San Jose, Calif., at HP Pavilion.
"The Pac-10 is going to pick up right where it left off last year," said Gobrecht, a two-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year at Washington. "I think every team will be stronger this season because every team has a solid group of returners.
"I believe this team will be a strong competitor in the Pac-10. Thanks to our newcomers, I expect that we are going to be much more competitive at practice and that will translate to our games.
"By the time it's all over, I know we're going to be a good basketball team."