Ten Schools in Ten Days: USC Women's Basketball Season Preview
Nov. 1, 2005
Go ahead, rub your eyes. You saw it correctly. That was the USC women'sbasketball team standing tall in the national rankings at the close of the2004-05 season. Weighing in at No. 22 after bursting back into NCAAtournament play to break a seven-year drought, the Women of Troy are gearing up for an even better 2005-06 season under second-year coach Mark Trakh.
The USC women have flourished under the guidance of Trakh, who spent 11seasons at Pepperdine before making his home at Troy last season. Only twoseniors have departed from that Trojan squad, leaving Trakh and his coaching staff with a load of eager and experienced returning talent for the 2005-06 campaign.
This year for the Women of Troy, it's all about what they're bringing back.The Trojans have already popped up on most everyone's radars for theupcoming 2005-06 season. Last season's 20-11 overall record, second-placefinish in the Pac-10 and second-round NCAA Tournament appearance -- coupled with a daunting 10 returners back -- have translated into several preseason rankings for the Women of Troy, as well as a No. 2 pick in the Pacific-10. In the larger 2005-06 scene, USC has also been chosen among the elite top 25 teams in the nation. The Women of Troy join five other Pac-10 schools in the national preseason polls. In the Athlon preseason poll, USC picked up its highest ranking at No. 16, while Lindy's has the 2005-06 Trojans at No. 21.
Add to that 10 players from last season's roster, one highly regardedrecruit and a complete coaching staff with their first season at Troy tucked solidly under their belts, and the USC women are several big steps closer to hauling in some serious success.
'The key is the same as it was last year,' Trakh said. 'We have 12 playerswho can play. We might have 10 different starting lineups and eightdifferent leading scorers, just like last year. We are in the position where no one is afraid to shoot at a given time, and we want to continue in that mode. We're a team. We don't have one person more important than another person. There's no MVP.'
Trakh and his staff managed to sidestep the rocky transition period thatcan occur during a first season, a testament to both the individuals on the staff and the chemistry built on the court. Balance rings out from last season's stats, as no one player averaged in double scoring figures and still the Trojans fought their way to a second-place finish in thePacific-10 Conference and on to a first-round win in the NCAA Tournamentbefore falling by a last-second basket to eventual finalist Michigan Statein the second round. By season's end, it was clear that Trakh, his staff and his players had cooked up a recipe for success in just a single season.
'After accepting a job, you have those moments where you don't know howthat first year could go,' recalled Trakh, who coached Pepperdine to sixstraight 20-win seasons before taking the Trojans to their 20-11 campaign in Year One. 'There were a lot of anxious moments. We just wanted to get in and get the first season done.
'At first I was disappointed we didn't beat Michigan State. But a weeklater I sat back and thought about how, a year earlier, if I had known we'd do all that, I wouldn't have had all those sleepless nights. After the sting of the loss leaves, you can look back and say we had a pretty good season for the first season. It was the most fun I've had coaching college basketball.
'The players were very unselfish last year. I think that's why it's so muchfun, because everyone is so unselfish. It doesn't matter who's our leadingscorer, who's starting or who's finishing. Everybody really believes that.'
That mentality is fostered by the assistant coaches Trakh brought in withhim last season. If anyone knows tradition and potential of the USCbasketball program, it is Jody Wynn. As a player under her maiden name of Anton, she was a standout guard for the Women of Troy from 1993-96. She and husband Derek Wynn were assistants under Trakh at Pepperdine, and were joined by Kai Felton as Trakh's assistant coaches for the move to USC.
Their charges will be fully familiar to them this season as they venture to build on last year's NCAA run and 12-6 Pac-10 mark. Gone from that squad are just two seniors -- Kim Gipson and Rachel Woodward -- who were important contributors for the Trojans. Each averaged around seven points per game and gave USC some solid inside presence.
With their graduation, All-Pac-10 honorable mention guard/forward Meghan Gnekow (Santa Ynez, Calif.) stands as USC's lone veteran. Now a senior, the 5-11 Gnekow brings in three years of experience with the Women of Troy, not to mention team-best rebounding numbers (5.8 rpg) and the third highest scoring mark (8.3 ppg) from last season. In her career at Troy, Gnekow has established herself as a defensive force as well as a significant offensive threat -- especially on the boards.
'She's the heart and soul of the team,' Trakh said of his only senior. 'Shewill show tremendous leadership, she'll get the kids up. She works her tail off for offensive boards and she's a really good defensive player.'
Gnekow has a talented bunch of teammates returning to her side this season. Half of the roster is comprised of juniors, including another forward responsible for 8.3 points per game last year -- Eshaya (Shay) Murphy (Van Nuys, Calif.). Also a serious threat on the boards (5.4 rpg), the 5-11 guard nabbed a team-high 1.8 steals per game to go along with her scoring. Murphy really hit her stride during the Pac-10 Tournament, where she scored 26 points and tore down 21 rebounds across the two games to earn All-Tournament honors. She closed out the season with 12 points and four steals against Michigan State. Since that time, she and sophomore Camille LeNoir spent time at the U.S. National Team tryouts this summer to ratchet up her value to this year's Trojan squad.
'She's our most talented player,' Trakh said of Murphy. 'The importantthing is that she and Camille got extra confidence and work at the National Team camp. She's got a good shot and she goes to the hole strong. She brings that fire and personality. She's one who could be our equalizer.'
Along with Murphy, three other returning juniors saw time in all 31 USCgames last season. Jamie Funn (Los Angeles, Calif.) started 18 of those games and averaged 7.1 points per game. She was one of three starters to shoot at least .400 from the floor. The 6-2 forward accompanied that .426 shooting percentage with 5.1 rebounds per game, and Trakh expects her to be a key post contributor once again.
'She works really, really hard,' he said. 'We're looking for her to be anoffensive threat. She's a great defender. She wanted to win so badly at the end of the season. When I was getting ready to talk to the team before the (NCAA first round) Louisville game, she said, `Coach, you don't have to do that, we're ready.' She's an intense competitor.'
Determination seems to be standard operating procedure with the juniorclass. Guard Jamie Hagiya (Torrance, Calif.) started 16 games at the point for the Trojans last season and was relied upon for her astute distribution of the ball. She now has led the Women of Troy in assists for two years, chalking up 101 last season while averaging 3.3 per game to rank sixth in the Pac-10.
'One of the best kids I've ever coached,' Trakh said of the 5-4 Hagiya.'She has a tremendous work ethic and has really overachieved. She's given us some great games. She's a great defender and is one of our leaders.'
USC's fourth junior returning part-time starter is Chloé Kerr (Bolingbrook, Ill.), the team leader in blocks last year with 36 to go along with her 5.3 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. As a 6-3 center, Kerr looms large as the Women of Troy's power in the paint.
'Chloé really came on in the Pac-10 tournament and NCAAs,' Trakh said. 'Shehad a great game against Stanford and again against Louisville. She's going to be our back-to-the-basket force -- our main offensive threat at the post.'
Juniors Allison Jaskowiak (Chesterfield, Mo.) and Markisha Lea (Riverside, Calif.) have yet to start a game for USC, but have both significantly increased their playing time. Jaskowiak saw time in 29 games last season and made her presence known primarily on the defensive end. The 5-11 guard/forward also finished the season with 26 points and 27 rebounds.
'Allison gave us quality minutes last year,' Trakh said. 'She's a greatdefender; she gets in your face and she has a great head on her shoulders.She knows her role and is a leader on and off the court.'
A 6-1 forward, Lea is another solid presence down low. She saw limitedplaying time last season, but averaged 1.3 points and a rebound per game in the 12 games in which she appeared.
'We would not have won 20 games last year without her,' Trakh said of Lea.'She busted her butt in practice and cheers everyone on. She's responsibleand keeps everybody up. She's also really athletic; I'd like to see a player like her on the floor next year.'
Possibly the most exciting returning tandem to the Trojan lineup includessophomore guards Brynn Cameron (Newbury Park, Calif.) and Camille LeNoir (Los Angeles, Calif.) -- both recipients of Pac-10 All-Freshman honors last season. Add to that the inside presence of fellow sophomore Símone Jelks (South Euclid, Ohio), and the Trojan sophomores are cued up to make an impact. LeNoir had a career performance in last season's NCAA second-round game against Michigan State (18 points), and Cameron also stepped up with clutch performances amidst all the postseason pressure. It was Cameron's three-pointer in that same Michigan State game that tied things up with 21 seconds left.
'I saw those freshman stay composed in front of a national audience onESPN, and thought, `Wow, we could be pretty good,'' Trakh said of Cameronand LeNoir's NCAA performances. 'We're not going to be a surprise this year. That's the thing.'
By the end of her freshman season, Cameron's spot-on shooting ability maynot have been a surprise, but it remained entirely effective. As the team's returning leading scorer (9.8 ppg) with the nation's 25th best three-point percentage (.409), the 5-10 Cameron's outside presence will be a big part of USC's game once again.
'Brynn has a great work ethic,' Trakh said. 'She shoots the ball like 300times a day over the summer. Her shot comes off the same way every time. Ican't say enough good things about her. She stretches out the defense.'
LeNoir also forced defenses to respect her in her freshman season. Askilled 5-6 point guard who provided the team's third best scoring mark of8.3 points per game last year, LeNoir is charged with taking control of the offense for the Women of Troy. She also was seventh in the Pac-10 in assists last season with 3.2 per game.
'Camille is the third best point guard in the Pac-10 next to CandiceWiggins at Stanford and UCLA's Nikki Blue,' Trakh said. 'She has a good head for the game and is one of the most skilled players I've coached. She can shoot the ball and doesn't let pressure get to her. Camille's got to run the show for us this season.'
As one of four returnees to the forward position, 5-11 sophomore Jelks ispoised to provide some extra balance to USC's gameplan. She was sidelined by hand and knee injuries for the first half of last season before stepping in for 15 games to give her some key courttime heading into this year's action.
'She was injured last season after being a highly touted player out ofOhio,' Trakh said. 'She's an extremely hard worker. We're looking for her to be a defensive stopper.'
Rounding out the roster are newcomers Nadia Parker (Spanaway, Wash.), the lone member of USC's 2005 recruiting class, and sophomore walk-on Kristen Travers (Lake Forest, Calif.) Parker, a 6-3 freshman center played three years of high school basketball in Germany before moving to Washington for her senior year.
'Nadia has a ton of athletic potential,' Trakh said. 'She can dunk abasketball. She can help, but she needs to have a good work ethic. We'redepending on her. She's got to give us some quality minutes.'
With such a balanced talent pool, Trakh finds himself in a far morecomfortable situation than he did a year ago. Whereas he came to USC knowing he had lost half of the scoring output from the previous season, this year's Trojan squad returns almost 80 percent of its offensive output. Still, Trakh maintains that there's always plenty of work to be done.
'We need to shoot the ball better as a team,' he notes. 'We can get up anddown the floor and we rebound well. Our strength is in the way we playtogether and the experience we'll have from last year. We'll be verybalanced. If we have another season like last, we'll have some good momentum to bring into the Galen Center the following season.'
The home court at Troy (Sports Arena and Lyon Center) largely has been asecure place for the Women of Troy. Only two teams got the best of theTrojans on their home floor last season, and the 2005-06 ride will mark the final season before the opening of the new 10,258-seat Galen Center). This season's Pac-10 schedule opens up at the Lyon Center and the final 2005-06 conference game on USC hardwood is set for Feb. 11 at the Sports Arena.
The Trojans' first official action will come at the Waikiki Beach MarriottClassic, where they will join Eastern Illinois and host Hawai'i for apreseason round-robin tournament Nov. 19-20. The nonconference schedulepicks right back up Nov. 23 at Trakh's alma mater, Long Beach State, before the Women of Troy take flight once more to face Notre Dame on Nov. 27. Upon its return, USC will settle into a stretch of seven games that will keep it in familiar territory for the ride into Pac-10 play.
The home opener pits the Women of Troy against TCU for a Dec. 4 showdown at the Sports Arena. Last year's road clash with the Horned Frogs was decided by a game-winning jumper from Hagiya. This year, the Trojans get to play host to the contest. That game will be followed by two of the fournonconference matches scheduled against local opponents. USC will make theshort trip to Loyola Marymount on Dec. 6 before hosting Cal State Northridge on Dec. 9 at the Sports Arena. On Dec. 11, Ohio State will touch down at the Sports Arena, and then the Trojans wrap up the preseason schedule with a home doubleheader with the men's team against nearby Cal State Fullerton. Pac-10 action is set for Dec. 20 when Oregon State comes to town.
In order to power past the marks set in 2004-05, the Women of Troy willcontinue to rely on their balanced roster, which now boasts an extrainjection of experience following the strides made last season.
'What really works well for me is we don't say we want to win the Pac-10,'Trakh said. 'Instead, let's take care of the practice ahead of us. We wantto be competitive. If you just throw yourself into the day-to-day processand concentrate on that, you'll get to those long-term goals that you want. Just get in the postseason and anything can happen. Anything almost happened last year.'