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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Intensity and hustle the name of the game in practice

THURSDAY CARDINAL COUPLE: We bring you an exclusive, behind the scenes look at Lady Cards basketball practice. It was an amazing two hours. Enjoy.

When I arrive at Cardinal Arena, shortly after 1 p.m., the floor is already crowded with players following loosening and stretching exercises under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Teena Murray. I count 14 players on the court, all listening intently to the instructions and explanation of each drill...and then performing the exercise. I've been told prior to my arrival that Coach Walz won't be running today's practice and since my contact through the sports information office hasn't arrived yet..I head over to assistant coach Michelle Clark-Heard to report in. She's been informed I'll be here, she greets me and tells me they're glad I'm here. I thank her and stand back to watch the practice. The other assistants must be out on the road...I see new Cardinal staffer Liz Sherwood. She's big and powerful, watching the action in a warm up jersey from the scorers table. Not one you'd drive the lane against and expect to toss in an effortless layup on.

Clark-Heard has a quick meeting at half court. She announces who will wear white jerseys and who will be in black. I'm told later by manager Laura Terry that this assignment changes daily and is done for's not an indicator of first or second teams. Not sure of some of the new players by facial recognition yet, I try

to listen in and get the assignments. As best as I can tell...Schimmel, Taylor, Harrington, Reid, Story, Warren and Johnson are in the black numbered jerseys and Burke, Harper, Hines, Vails, Dyer, Slaughter and Tay reverse their jerseys and are in white.

Tia Gibbs and Nikki Burton aren't practicing today. Burton, recovering from hip surgery, is working the exercise bike. Schimmel wears #23 and Harrington is #20. I'm immediately impressed with the size of #42 and ask Becky Bonner which of the new players that is. I'm informed that it is transfer Cierra Warren. Asia Taylor looks impressive...strong and healthy...prowling the court with confidence and an almost predatory grin on her face. Toya Johnson looks so tiny out there...but is quick and works the court well.

There are also 4 guys standing by in red women's basketball jerseys. This number will grow as practice goes on. They are the team that the girls will scrimmage against in different situations. They watch the team practice in-bounds under the basket situations. Burke and Reid are the most recognizable on the court, along with Harper...and they run various sets under the watchful eye of Clark-Heard and Bonner. Clark-Heard stops the action occasionally, pointing out positioning and other things she sees that need correcting. Plenty of different player combinations work the drill and they work alternately with and without defenders. Coach stresses defense. Reminds them of the need to work on defense. Tells them they need to pick up the defense. It is, after all, what eventually spells the difference between winning and losing..

The segments are timed and the next
involves 4 on 4 half court passing. The guys take the court and work the ball around the perimeter of hustling Lady Cards. I ask one of the guys later why it's a four on four drill. He explains his's half court and a lot easier to negotiate the drill with two less bodies.

As the practice rolls on, many different game situations are practiced. These are alternated with brief shooting drills at all six baskets set up on the court. I watch Burke and Story work the shots close to me and don't see many misses...

During the drills, a voice addresses the players from way up high. It is Jeff Walz, watching from the east side balcony and his comments are direct, to the point, and specified toward certain players. He isn't there long...but his impact is immediately felt and his suggestions and observations acted upon.

Although I only made it through two hours of the scheduled 3 hour practice, one of my favorite drills involved the girls at the foul line, one of the Lady Cards shooting a free throw and then setting up on defense against the guys to press after the made shot. After the guys get the ball to the opposite end of the court and shoot...the girls bring it in and drive the court on offense. Several great plays in this sequence...Taylor rejecting a jumper with authority, the press effective several times...creating turnovers and Schimmel seeming to make every pull up jumper she attempts in the drill.

Reid and Burke are the take charge players, the vocal leaders and work with the freshmen during the practice. Reid points out to the freshmen that it's OK to enter the lane during a free throw attempt when the ball leaves the shooter's hands. Several appear surprised by this rule. Heard encourages the point guards to be more vocal on the court and Bonner works with the post players on moves and positioning beneath the basket. I watch individual players work as the practice rolls on.

It's way too early to make any predictions on who will see playing time and how much, so these observations should just be taken for what they were worth today. Harper is her usual flying all over the court, hustling ball of blonde energy. Tay impresses me, she works the court with a natural ease and seems to get along well with her teammates. Schimmel is attentive, eager to learn and hitting shots right and left. She says something I couldn't hear to Taylor at the top of the circle and Taylor doubles over in laughter. Vails and Dyer are working hard, learning the play calls and battling against Hines and Taylor. Harrington looks good working inside also. Clark-Heard points something out to her, isn't satisfied with her acknowledgement and response and directs her to look at her when she's talking to her. Slaughter looks very athletic and gets to a rebound or loose ball so quickly! All of the players are learning right now...learning to play with their new teammates and within themselves. I haven't had the privledge of seeing a Walz led practice yet this season..but I can only imagine the intensity level and learning breaks are as great, if not more vocal, than the excellent workout I saw today. To see 14 girls instead of 7 or 8 out there...working, learning and hustling is a wonderful thing...

I got a chance to talk to sophomore guard Nikki Burton while we watched the practice. Some of her impressions follow.

(On what she's seen so far the year with the new players)

" I think that all the newcomers are pretty good, they just need to work at it and develop a work ethic. All of them are bringing a good effort in..they're learning to play the game at this level. They're working hard, they're going to be good."

(On her freshman learning experiences last year)

"It's very tough to pick up on it at first. I just tried to be coachable and listened to what the coach's said. You just need to listen to what is being said, pick up on it and it all comes together."

(On sitting out with her surgery recovery)

"I hope to be back out there soon. Right now I'm just trying to get my motion back in my hip and get back on the court."

(On a starting five)

" Everybody is just really competitive right now and working to get a spot and that's what makes practice fun. They're just getting after it. I don't know who would be a starting five right now or who would just come in and contribute to the team." (A very politically correct answer!)

(Any special words for the readers of CARDINAL COUPLE?)

"Just come out. Enjoy our team, see what new stuff we got and cheer!"

My two hours went way too fast watching the team in action. During a water break, I walked over to Coach Heard and said my goodbyes...thanking her again for what I described as a very impressive session. As I left the floor and walked down the hallway to the elevator, I gazed at some of the pictures of the Cardinal Women greats over the years. I wonder which of these girls will earn their spot on those walls? If effort and hustle is a indicator...they're all eligible from what I saw today.


  1. How did Keisha Hines look? I am really hoping she can have a good year for her senior season!

  2. Hines looked to be in shape and performing well in the drills I saw Wednesday. My best guess is that she'll see plenty of time in the post...with Vails, Dyer and Harrington battling for backup time behind her. It's a shame Warren is sitting out a year...she looks very powerful and prominent in the pivot.


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