October 4, 2011 6:20 AM
After last season's expectations following a Big West Conference co-championship, and the disappointment that ensued from a first-round Big West Tournament loss, the UCSB women's basketball team headed into its offseason with a bad taste in their mouth.
They knew they could have done better.
This year, with a new head coach, the Gauchos will need each and every player to be on the same page and work together as a team if they want to be successful.
"I tell them every day, we are going to have to rely on all 11 players," says Carlene Mitchell, who takes over the team this year after being an assistant coach for the legendary C. Vivian Stringer at Rutgers for ten years. "We have a short bench, so players should expect minutes, and want minutes."
The team officially kicked off practice on Monday, and Mitchell can already see the similarities between her new team and her old one.
"This team is a lot like the one back at Rutgers. We may not be as athletic, but we are just as versatile," she says. "We have players at the skill position, we have some athletes, but again, we will have to play small ball and really move the ball around."
The team has three returning starters from last season, including Emilie Johnson, who was an All-Big West First Team selection.
"When I was sixteen years old, I dreamed of taking this team to the NCAA tournament, so that will always be in the back of my mind," Johnson admits. "I got a taste of that when we cut down the nets at the Big West tournament in my freshman year, and I want this team to have that same feeling."
After three outstanding seasons in the blue and gold uniform, Johnson was selected to represent her country in the Pan-American games starting in mid-October.
"What a great honor for a kid that only bleeds blue and gold. It's only fitting that she has the chance to represent the country," Mitchell says.
Johnson and Mitchell both admit that there are drawbacks to her leaving Santa Barbara and competing in the Pan-Am Games, but the upside could be even better.
"She will miss some practice time, but we have worked it out and we have talked about it a lot," says Mitchell. "She will bring back a lot of little things, like discipline, and knowing what it takes to play at the highest level."
One thing working in the Gauchos' favor is that they return five of their top six scorers from last season, losing only No. 2 scorer Mekia Valentine to graduation. Johnson returns with a team-leading 13.7 points per game, while Kelsey Adrian was third at 9.7, while Sweets Underwood was fourth at 8.5 off the bench.
One of those six, returning to the team after a solid freshman year is Melissa Zornig, who knows that this season will take a lot of sacrifice and hard work.
"I think since it's a new system, all of us on the team are trying to give into it and get on the same page," she said. "Our goal as a team is to make it as far as we can, because we all know we have the potential to be extremely good,
"We were very upset after the Big West Tournament. We definitely were not content with the way our season ended. After being upset by Pacific in the first round, and then losing to USC by three, I think we all knew we had the potential to be better. We should have won that game."
Mitchell will be expecting better sophomore seasons from Zornig, and from Nicole Nesbitt, who should see significant playing time at point guard this year.
"I think Nicole has no idea how good she can be. She has matured into a very good player," says Mitchell. "Another pleasant surprise for the coaching staff has been Destini Mason. She is an amazing athlete, and she has worked extremely hard on her jumper this off-season. So we expect a lot from her as well."
Johnson summed up this season best, when she said, "It's an entirely different feeling as a senior. You want to make it last, and you want to make the most of it, but it's going to be different with a brand new system. It's just about buying in, and enjoying the ride."