Sept. 14, 1997
New Challenges for Young Irish Squad
Despite the loss of four starters off last year's Final Four team, McGraw is optimistic about the upcoming season
Losing four starters and two 2,000-point scorers off of a 31-7 Final Four team would cause any head coach some sleepless nights. Yet, as Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw looks to the 1997-98 campaign, the 11th-year Irish mentor has no sense of apprehension about her team or the challenges ahead.
After the most successful season ever in the 20-year history of Notre Dame women's basketball, McGraw and the Irish are ready to "reload." This is an Irish team confident in its abilities and talent to once again make a run in the NCAA tournament.
"We're all looking forward to this season," McGraw says. "Last year we knew that we were going to be good and I think that put a lot of pressure on us throughout the year in every game that we went into. This year, we're not going to have that kind of pressure on us. There will be a whole different mental approach This is a team which is looking forward to establishing its own identity."
With a squad that returns only one starter (senior Mollie Peirick), patience for McGraw and her coaching staff will be a key, especially early on. But with the return of Peirick, sharp-shooter junior Sheila McMillen and a talented crop of underclassemen that includes three USA Today honorable mention All-Americans, this is a team ready to carve its own niche in the Notre Dame women's basketball annals.
The upcoming season, however, will mark a change for both coaches and players. Gone are four starters -- Jeannine Augustin, Rosanne Bohman, Katryna Gaither and Beth Morgan -- who were part of the most successful four-year period in the history of the program. For the first time in two seasons, there is sense of uncertainty of not knowing what to expect from game-to-game.
"My coaching staff and I are going to have to be patient with this team, particularly early in the season," McGraw says. "We're going to have to be patient in letting them learn as the season goes along.
"This year will be a change for us," McGraw continues. "We've gone into the past two seasons knowing that we could score from both the inside and outside. With Katryna and Beth, we could get our points from anywhere on the floor. This year we don't know what to expect. Hopefully our freshmen will come along quickly. How fast they catch on to our system may determine our success."
While there appears to be several question marks this season, there is little doubt that the strength of this Irish team will come from its backcourt play. Guards Peirick and McMillen will be the leaders on the floor and will be counted on to provide Notre Dame with much of its scoring. Both certainly benefitted from last year's Final Four experience and are ready to step forward and take on greater roles this season.
"Mollie and Sheila are going to be our leaders on the floor, " McGraw says. "Both are ready to take the next step in their games. Mollie will be able to score more this season because she will play mainly the two-guard and Sheila will be our 'go-to' person. Sheila is going to be the one to take the big shot at the end of the game."
The health of the team also will be critical. Two players, sophomore Niele Ivey and junior Danielle Green, need to come back from the injuries which sidelined them a year ago to keep the Irish solid on the perimeter.
"Niele and Danielle are so critical to us in terms of what they can do for us on the floor defensively," McGraw says. "Clearly they are our two strongest defensive players. We're going to rely heavily on scoring a lot of points off of our defense. Having them healthy is important. If they're not ready to go, we'll struggle early on."
With both Gaither and Morgan in the starting lineup the past three seasons, there was little concern for point production. As McGraw evaluates this year's team, she isn't quite sure who is going to do all the scoring. She will predict, however, that there will be much more balance in the scoring and minutes played columns.
"We'll be a much more balanced team in terms of scoring," McGraw says. "Early on we may not know where those points are going to come from. I expect Sheila to do alot of scoring for us, but we may have a situation where we have four players averaging 10 points a game.
"Because of our balance, opposing teams may have a tough time defending us because they are not going to know who to key on. We're not going to have defenders keying on just one or two players; teams are going to have to stop everybody."
With the loss of Gaither and Bohman, Notre Dame's frontline will need to be revamped. The only experienced player returning up front is sophomore Julie Henderson. Henderson played extremely well down the stretch for the Irish especially in the latter half of the season. She came up with some big baskets in key situations during the postseason and seemed to play her best against the better players.
The addition of freshmen centers, 6-5 Ruth Riley and 6-4 Meaghan Leahy and 6-3 forward Kelley Siemon, gives Notre Dame size and strength in the post. These three are extremely versatile and strong all-around players.
"We're going to look for Julie to be our leader in the post," McGraw says. "How quickly the freshmen come along may determine our success this year. The three post players coming in all have different strengths so who we play and when will be determined by what are needs are at the time.
"It's an exciting time for our incoming freshmen," McGraw says. "The freshmen coming in know they have a chance to play and contribute. Hopefully it will work to their advantage and they don't feel any pressure."
Fundamentals and solid defense will be important this year. Notre Dame is going to have to rely on its strong outside shooting game, pressure defense and being more aggressive around the basket.
"We're going to rely heavily on our fundamentals," McGraw says. "We're going to have to shoot the ball as well as we have the past two years and we're going to have to make our free throws. Particularly early on in the season, we're going to have to the little things well. We'll stress defense and being aggressive around the basket."
The one intangible that will make a difference this season will be the team's work ethic. There is a level of expectation now in the program that going to the NCAA tournament should be routine. But getting there, requires hard work and dedication and that is what may be the determining factor in Notre Dame's success in '97-'98.
"The difference between being a very good team and a medicore team this season is going to be determined by how hard the players are willing to work," McGraw says. "The difference last year was in the work ethic of Beth Morgan and Katryna Gaither. They had an unbelievable work ethic that filtered down to the entire team.
"If we work as hard as we did last year, we'll get in a routine and that is how a team gains confidence," McGraw says. "Our work ethic and leadership will determine how successful we are, particularly early on in the season."
Despite its youth, this is a group of players that could be very productive by season's end. The versatility of each of the four players will give the Irish several options on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
Sophomore Julie Henderson (6-3, Ann Arbor, Mich.) is the only returning player in the post. As a freshmen, she played in all 38 games and averaged 3.0 ppg. and 2.3 rpg. Although she will have to become more of a scorer and rebounder, McGraw is certain her second-year player is ready for the challenge.
Henderson must assume a leadership role in the post this season. She showed poise in big games for the Irish, particularly in the postseason. Henderson shot the ball extremely well, hitting better than 56 percent of her shots from the field. She is working on her outside shooting which will force opposing defenses to play her away from the basket.
"Julie understands her role this season and we're looking for her to have a good season," McGraw says. "She knows where she wants to go and what kind of player she wants to become. Julie gained a lot of confidence last year. Playing well against the better players in the BIG EAST and in the NCAA tournament certainly helped her confidence."
After Henderson, McGraw and her coaching staff will turn to three of their four incoming freshmen for help in the middle and in the post. This is a talented trio who each earned USA Today honorable mention honors,
When Ruth Riley (6-5, Roann, Ind.) takes the court this season, she will be the tallest player in the program's history and will contend for the starting job at center. She is a player with great size and excellent shot-blocking ability. The position and role Riley will have on the floor for Notre Dame this season will be similar to one she had in high school. The holder of 16 school records at North Miami, she averaged 26.0 points and 14.7 rebounds in her final scholastic campaign.
"Ruth's adjustment will be easier than the other three freshmen on the team because essentially we're going to ask her to play the same position as she did in high school. She is an intimidating defender because of her ability to block shots. We're counting on Ruth to have a big presence in the lane and to be an enforcer underneath the basket. With her height, she also will have the ability to score points for us."
At 6-4, Meaghen Leahy (Wilbraham, Mass.) can play both as a forward and in the middle. Along with Riley, Leahy will give the Irish an imposing tandem for the future.
Leahy is perhaps the most versatile of Notre Dame's frontline players. She shoots the ball well and will look this season to become somewhat of an outside shooting threat. She hopes to develop her three-point shot as the season progresses. In addition, Leahy displays great composure when she is on floor, handles the ball well under pressure and has adept passing abilities.
Leahy finished her career as the all-time scorer and rebounder at Suffield (CT) Academy. As a senior, she averaged 24.3 ppg. and 11.0 rpg.
"Meaghen is one of our best all-around players and is solid fundamentally in all areas," McGraw says. "She will do a little bit of everything for us. Meaghan can come out and play the three spot on the floor because of her ability to face the basket. She is working on developing her three-point shot which will make her a tough player to defend."
Kelley Siemon (6-2, Edina, Minn.) is a tremendous defensive player and will provide Notre Dame with solid minutes. McGraw will count on her strong defensive play early on in the season. She is aggressive around the basket and rebounds well.
Siemon has enjoyed playing at a high level nationally and has played with and against some very good players. As a senior, she averaged 21.0 ppg. and 11.0 rpg. and this past summer her 17&under AAU team won the national title.
"We're counting on Kelley to help us out defensively," McGraw says. "She has had some tremendous experiences at the national level, especially playing for her AAU team which has consistently been ranked in the top five.
Senior Mollie Peirick (5-11, Eureka, Mo.) is the lone returning starter off of last season's Final Four team. A three-year starter, Peirck has seen action as both a point and shooting guard during her career. With the expected return of sophomore point guard Niele Ivey (5-8, St. Louis, Mo.) to the lineup, Peirick will likely see the most playing time this season at the two spot, although from time to time she will play the point.
Peirck averaged 7.9 ppg., 4.1 rpg., and 4.4 aspg. in '96-'97 while starting 33 of the 38 games she played. She will have a similar role as she had last season, but will look to become more of a scorer. Peirick has the best overall game on the team in terms of her shooting, passing and rebounding.
"Mollie is going to have a similar role for us this year as she last season except that we are going to rely on her to score more," McGraw says. "Mollie does so many things well and is one of our most consistent players. Yet, the success of our team may rest with her leadership ability on the court."
Junior Sheila McMillen (5-10, Rochester, Ind.) is Notre Dame's top returning outside shooting threat. A year ago, she averaged 8.0 ppg.and 39.1 percent from the field and took more than half of her shots from outside the three-point arc.
McGraw expects McMillen to emerge as Notre Dame's "go-to" player this season. During the past two seasons, she has made some big shots for the Irish in critical situations, but even more important is her willingness to take those shots and make them. McMillen has shown great composure and has demonstrated late in a game that she is a player who wants the ball in clutch situations.
"For the past two years, Sheila has played in the shadow of Beth Morgan", McGraw says. "But I really feel that she will come into her own this season and be a real leader for us, especially in late-game situations. Sheila will have to do a lot more scoring for us and it will be important for her to maintain her confidence in her ability to hit the outside shot. It shows great promise for us that she is ready to take on the responsiblity of being our "go-to" person late in a game."
After recovering from a torn right anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), Niele Ivey looks to become Notre Dame's starting point guard. Ivey played in only five games last season and was averaging 3.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg. and 3.0 aspg. at the time of her injury. She displays tremendous poise on the court and is a player who is able to control the tempo of the game.
Ivey will be the player to run the Irish offense this season. She handles the ball well under pressure and her quickness prevents opposing defenses from being able to pressure Notre Dame in the backcourt. Her best asset to the team will be in her defensive play. Along with junior Danielle Green (5-8, Chicago, IL) and freshman Imani Dunbar (5-7, San Angelo, Tex.), the Irish will have a strong perimeter defense that will be able to press more and play more man-to-man defense.
"Niele has so much skill and talent," McGraw says. "She's one of the hardest working players on our team. She's a great defender and is able to penetrate to the basket or kick the ball out to a shooter on the wing. Niele can be a scorer for us, but we're expecting her to score most of her points off of her defensive play."
Danielle Green is coming off a torn achilles tendon suffered on the first day of practice. Like Ivey, she is one of Notre Dame's best defensive players. She'll start off as a defensive stopper, but will be a scorer off of her defense and in transition. McGraw is also counting on Green to become a rebounding threat.
"Danielle will need some time to get adjusted after missing a whole year of both practicing and playing in games," McGraw says. "She is one of the players we are counting on to provide us with strong defensive play. Danielle also has the ability to become a score. We're also going to need her to rebound; she's one of our better rebounders and is very tenacious around the boards. Danielle will be both a defensive and offensive spark for us coming off the bench."
McGraw is expecting senior Kari Hutchinson (6-0, Nine Mile Falls, Wash.) to have big year. Hutchinson played well last season until a broken hand sidelined her for the final eight games of the season before the NCAAs.
Hutchinson is another player McGraw can count on to make a big play in a game. She's a terrific passer and strong outside shooter. Her ability to hit the three-point shot can break up a zone defense. Although she averaged jus 2.8 ppg. and 2.7 rpg., McGraw is counting on Hutchinson be a an integral part of the Irish success this season.
"Kari will contribute a lot this season," McGraw says. "Before her injury last season, she was making big plays for us in key games. She's one of our best passers on our team and is a strong outside shooter. Kari's ability to hit the outside shot will help break up a lot of zone defenses."
Freshman Imani Dunbar (5-7, San Angelo, Tex.) will help the Irish out defensively. She penetrates well to the basket and is a good ballhandler. McGraw will use Dunbar as a defensive spark off the bench initially. Not known as a scorer, she averaged 14.6 ppg., 5.0 rpg. and 5.3 aspg. as a senior at San Angelo.
"With Danielle, Niele and Imani, we have three strong perimeter defenders," McGraw says. "We'll need good minutes from Imani coming off the bench. She needs to work on her shooting to become more of a scoring threat, but I expect that will come as the season progresses."
"The preseason will be a good chance for us to figure out how good we are," McGraw says. "The teams we are going to play give us this opportunity. We're hoping for one big road win that will help enhance our NCAA tournament chances in March."
The BIG EAST will once again be extremely tough. Connecticut appears to be the preseason league favorite, but also look for Miami and Rutgers to present some problems for teams along the way. McGraw and the Irish will be looking to finish in the top three in order to get a bye in the BIG EAST tournament.
"We'll definitely be focusing on the BIG EAST, but we look at the preseason as a way to get some recognition early on," McGraw says. "This team wants to be establish its own identity and get beyond people saying that Notre Dame basketball was just Beth Morgan and Katryna Gaither. This is a team that believes its a pretty good ballclub. We're just going to have to go out and prove it."