July 30, 2003
Some music lovers contend that classical music is a language all its own. When presented by a talented orchestra, the convergence of melody, rhythm and tone can create a masterpiece in an unspoken genre. Composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky spent years and even decades carefully crafting their symphonies in the hopes of emerging one day with a musical creation that would have universal and long-lasting appeal.
In some ways, the Notre Dame women's basketball team finds itself in a similar situation for the 2003-04 season. The Irish have spent the last two seasons attempting to find the right blend of ability, intelligence and character to return them to the forefront of the college basketball scene. It has been a multi-stage process that has included numerous successes as well as a handful of failures.
One of those successes came at the end of last season, when the Irish put together a magical run to their fifth NCAA Sweet Sixteen in the last seven years. The combination of raw talent and unbreakable will served as a catalyst for Notre Dame and gave all Irish fans a glimpse of what potentially might be in the not-so-distant future.
Without a doubt, Notre Dame has assured itself of a place among the nation's elite programs. Thanks to the undying efforts of 17th-year head coach Muffet McGraw, the Irish are one of only six teams in the country to have an active streak of 10 consecutive 20-win seasons. In addition, Notre Dame has qualified for the NCAA Tournament in each of the last eight years, highlighted by its five Sweet Sixteen berths, two Final Four appearances and the 2001 NCAA title.
However, McGraw is quick to point out that those accomplishments can fade from the public eye if her team pays too much attention to the past.
"There's always an expectation of success with our program which is a credit to those players and coaches who came before us," McGraw said.
"However, I think we would be doing a major disservice to those folks if we didn't continue to build on the foundation they laid years ago. Our whole team, from the players to the coaches, is committed to leaving this program in a better situation than when we got here. To us, that means competing for the national championship every single year and continuing to make Notre Dame a major player on the national scene in the college basketball world."
In order to keep those goals in sharp focus, the Irish will turn to the four starters and nine monogram winners who are returning for the '03-04 season. They comprise better than three-quarters of the scoring and 80 percent of the rebounding from last year's club. The Irish also will welcome back the services of a pair of veteran guards < Jeneka Joyce and Monique Hernandez < who missed large portions of the last two seasons but played integral roles on Notre Dame's 2001 national championship squad.
"One of the problems we've had since we won the title is that most of our players didn't know how hard it was to get to the top," McGraw noted.
"It took us the better part of two years to find that work ethic and desire that made us a champion, but we're now starting to rebuild that passion and intensity. With Jeneka and Monique back, their experience and maturity will be an important asset in our ongoing development in this area."
One ingredient for success that has been plentiful in recent years has been team chemistry. The majority of the players on this season's roster have been together for at least two years, forming a close bond through many of the ups and downs Notre Dame has experienced in that time. From the success of last year's Sweet Sixteen appearance to the disappointment of consecutive losses in the BIG EAST Tournament quarterfinals, the 2003-04 Irish have emerged as a hardened group of wily veterans who are well prepared for the challenges that will confront them during the upcoming season.
"You can learn a lot about your true colors when you're confronted with adversity," McGraw observed.
"We have had a lot of sand kicked in our face the last couple of years and we've managed to persevere and fight through those hard times. It hasn't been easy, but I was so proud of the way we battled and competed at the end of last year in the NCAA tournament. It showed the kind of character and fortitude which we need to be a champion."
Another important trait for Notre Dame this season will be its depth. The Irish are expecting to field a 13-player roster, which matches the largest contingent since their inaugural BIG EAST Conference season in '95-96. Notre Dame should have experience and maturity at every floor position with capable reserves on call with little decline in production. However, while some might consider a large roster to be a burden for a coach, particularly when it comes to handing out precious court time, McGraw sees this year's depth as an advantage.
"Last year, we basically played seven people and because of injuries and other circumstances, those seven players were going to play no matter what," she said.
"Now, if someone doesn't have their A-game going, there's a pretty good chance they're going to be sitting on the bench and watching someone else go out. That's only going to make us better because nobody will be able to sit back, rely on the fact they've been here a couple of years and assume they're probably going to play."
Competition should be especially rugged for the five starting spots on this year's squad. Seven of the nine returning monogram winners have started at least five times in their respective careers, while all three incoming freshmen started every game in their final two seasons at the high school level. With that type of experience in her stable, McGraw and the rest of the Irish coaching staff will have the luxury of numerous options and playing combinations this season.
Without question, Notre Dame's strength in 2003-04 will lie in its post game. All three front line starters are back, led by two-time all-BIG EAST forward Jacqueline Batteast. A junior from South Bend, she led the Irish in scoring (13.9 ppg.), rebounding (8.3 rpg.) and blocked shots (1.56 bpg.) last season and ranked in the top 15 in the conference in points, rebounds, blocks, steals (1.97 spg.) and double-doubles (8). She also scored in double-figures 26 times in 32 games with five 20-point outings to her credit. In addition, she led Notre Dame in rebounding 14 times, including a career-high 18 boards at Connecticut in February.
In only two years under the Golden Dome, Batteast has been a powerful force at both ends of the floor, ranking among Notre Dame's career leaders in scoring (6th, 13.8 ppg.) and rebounding (tie-2nd, 8.1 rpg.). In fact, she tallied her 800th career point in the final game of last season, becoming only the fifth player in school history to reach that milestone before the end of her sophomore campaign. Despite struggling from the field in last year's NCAA Tournament, Batteast proved her worth in other ways, averaging 8.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game.
"Jackie has worked hard on developing and improving her perimeter game throughout this summer," McGraw said.
"One of her goals before she leaves Notre Dame is to be a really great shooter. The more shots she gets this summer, the more confidence she will gain in her ability from the outside. I really feel good about where she is at right now. She can do some many things to help us and I'm sure she will be ready to come out at the start of fall practice and have a great year."
On the other block, sophomore forward Courtney LaVere is coming off a magnificent rookie season that saw her garner BIG EAST All-Rookie Team honors. The 6-3 native of Ventura, Calif., ranked second on the team in scoring (12.4 ppg.), rebounding (5.6 rpg.) and field goal percentage (.486), and placing in the top 20 in the BIG EAST in the first two categories as well as double-doubles (5). She also logged 21 double-digit scoring games and led the Irish in rebounding nine times last year.
LaVere was at her best against top competition, charting three of her five double-doubles against ranked opponents, including a season-high 23 points and 10 rebounds vs. Purdue and 20 points and a season-best 12 rebounds at Villanova. She also was an important contributor in the postseason, averaging 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in Notre Dame's run to the Sweet Sixteen.
"Courtney was incredibly consistent for a freshman, whether it was scoring on the block, hitting the outside jumper or knocking down a big free throw," McGraw commented.
"She is someone who really can do it all and will continue to be a go-to player for us. We certainly didn't plan on putting her in that role as a freshman, but we realized pretty quickly that she was someone we needed to get the ball to in critical situations. Now that she's a little more well known, I'm sure she'll draw some better defenders, but I think teams are still going to have a difficult time guarding her one-on-one. We're counting on her to be a great offensive force for us this season."
The third returning starter in the post is junior center Teresa Borton. At 6-3, the Yakima, Wash., product has been a stalwart on the Irish front line for the last two seasons, providing a solid mix of offensive flair and defensive toughness. She was fourth on the team in scoring (8.0 ppg.) and third in rebounding (5.0 rpg.) last year while setting the pace with a .574 field goal percentage. She also finished fifth in the BIG EAST in blocked shots (1.31 bpg.) and showed tremendous improvement at the free throw line, raising her efficiency at the charity stripe by more than 22 points from her freshman season.
Borton scored in double figures 11 times last season and was the team's leading rebounder on three occasions. However, her biggest contributions have not shown up in her final statistical line. In Notre Dame's second-round NCAA Tournament win at No. 8 Kansas State, Borton held the Wildcats' All-America center Nicole Ohlde to half of her scoring and rebounding averages until the final minute of the contest when KSU was desperately trying to rally. McGraw later credited Borton with being one of the unsung heroes in the victory.
"Teresa is striving to be a little more consistent, although I thought she had a great year last year," McGraw said.
"She is our anchor at the center position. We'd like to see her score a bit more, but she's very good around the basket and works incredibly hard to improve her game. She's got a ton of ability and I think she is really going to blossom this year."
Another player who could see significant minutes in the paint is junior forward Katy Flecky. A versatile post, the Lone Tree, Colo., resident can play all three front line positions and has a wealth of experience after starting 15 games last year. Despite fighting through a myriad of nagging injuries during the campaign, she averaged 7.0 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest, carding a career-high 22 points in the season opener against Cleveland State. She also picked up her second career double-double with a 12-point, 12-rebound effort against Georgetown in early February.
One of the toughest players on this year's Irish roster, the 6-2 Flecky has the ability to face up to her opponents or play with her back to the basket. In addition, she has excellent passing skills and ranked second among all Notre Dame post players with 45 assists a season ago.
"Katy is a lot like Jackie (Batteast) in that she presents a difficult matchup for our opponents," McGraw noted.
"She can beat you off the dribble, she can post up against a smaller defender and she can step out and knock down the three-pointer. She's also a solid rebounder and does a good job of using her size to her advantage. Once she's completely healthy, we expect Katy to be a major contributor for us."
Another player who brings toughness and a physical nature into the paint is freshman forward Crystal Erwin. Standing 6-2 out of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Erwin was a dominant post presence during her prep career at St. Paul High School, notching 22.3 points, 13.4 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game while earning All-America honors from virtually every publication. Rated as one of the top three senior post players in the country, Erwin will contend for playing time immediately and should give the Irish another imposing force on the blocks.
"Crystal is someone we're expecting to come in and be a great rebounder for us," McGraw said.
"Her strengths are her leaping ability and the way she attacks the glass at both ends. She can also face up and hit the 15-foot jumper and we really like the way she runs the floor and goes after the ball. She's a little different from some of the other players we have because she's not afraid to go inside and mix it up."
Leadership for any team starts at the point guard position and Notre Dame has a true gem at that spot in sophomore Megan Duffy. Although she was hindered while recovering from off-season knee surgery, the Dayton, Ohio, product wasted little time in putting her stamp on this Irish squad, averaging 3.0 points and 2.2 assists while appearing in every game last year and making five starts as a freshman. She led Notre Dame in assists nine times and had three games with at least five assists, including a career-high seven handouts at Arizona State in early December.
Duffy was at her peak during last year's postseason, averaging 6.7 points and more than 24 minutes of action during the three Irish NCAA Tournament games. She also was deadly accurate at the free throw line, hitting 29 of her last 32 foul shots, including four critical charity tosses in the final minute of Notre Dame's win at Kansas State. It is that kind of composure and determination that made a believer out of her head coach.
"Megan's going to run the team," McGraw firmly stated.
"She's just a great leader. She has a great sense of the game, understands the offense and knows exactly what she has to do at any given moment. She's also worked extremely hard on her outside shot during the off-season and she should be much more comfortable on the perimeter this year. I think the player that you saw at the end of last season is the player she will be at the beginning of this year and then she'll just continue to improve from there. Great things are in store for Megan and she's going to be a terrific leader for this team over the next three years."
With Duffy's emergence as the primary point guard, senior Le'Tania Severe slides over to the shooting guard spot this season. A two-year team captain, Severe started every game last year while spending time at both backcourt position, finishing fifth on the team with a career-high 7.3 points per game. She also led the Irish in assists (3.8 apg.) and steals (2.15 spg.), while placing second on the squad in free throw percentage (.807) and ranking in the top 15 in the BIG EAST in all three categories. She posted 11 double-figure scoring games after reaching that mark just seven times in her first two seasons at Notre Dame, and she also led the team in assists 11 times.
One of the fastest players in the country, Severe is a threat in transition with strong playmaking abilities. She also has worked to hone her outside shooting touch, hitting on 50 percent of her three-point tries last season and connecting at nearly a 43-percent clip in her career.
"We expect Le'Tania to continue her leadership role with this team," McGraw said.
"She's a flashy, aggressive player which is someone we really need on the floor. She makes things happen every time she touches the ball and that's going to be especially important as a two-guard this year. We're looking for her to be a bit more of a three-point threat this year, as well as contribute on the defensive side of things."
Another player who will be an important asset at the shooting guard spot is senior Jeneka Joyce. The Topeka, Kan., resident has been riddled with injuries throughout her career and missed the entire '02-03 season while recovering from a handful of leg maladies. She has appeared in 49 games in her career, making eight starts and averaging 4.3 points per game in a little more than 16 minutes per night. She is a solid three-point threat, ranking seventh on Notre Dame's all-time three-point percentage list with a .369 ratio.
"We are counting on Jeneka to score primarily from behind the three-point line," McGraw said.
"She's a very steady player who doesn't turn the ball over and keeps her head in pressure situations. She's very smart, always knows where to be on the floor and knows exactly what to do. In that way, I think she'll complement Megan and Le'Tania as a great leader for this team."
Joining Joyce in providing veteran guidance from the backcourt is senior Monique Hernandez. After missing the better part of two years for personal reasons, Hernandez has rejoined the Irish and offers another substantial defensive presence. Hailing from Rio Rancho, N.M., Hernandez has seen action in 63 games for Notre Dame and averaged a career-best 2.6 points per game during the 2001 national championship season. She is expected to lend punch to the Irish transition game and has some perimeter scoring ability as well.
"Monique is primarily a great defender who can make things happen," McGraw noted.
"She's got a great intensity about her and is very competitive. Just having her on this team is definitely going to raise the intensity level a notch. She's strong in the open court, but she's also been working a lot on her outside game. Hopefully, she will be scoring for us in a number of ways this year."
Despite the influx of veteran players at the guard spots, a pair of freshmen will look to make an impression in their initial campaign under the Golden Dome. Susie Powers, a 5-11 native of Centennial, Colo., spent much of her final two high school seasons at point guard, but will focus mainly on the off-guard position at Notre Dame. She averaged 13.6 points and 6.8 assists per game during her prep career, including 15.7 points per outing in her senior season. An honorable mention selection by Parade and Street & Smith's, Powers is a solid perimeter scorer who connected on 42 percent of her three-point tries at perennial powerhouse Highlands Ranch High School.
"Susie will probably come in as the best passer on our team and that's something we are sorely in need of," McGraw stated.
"She's got a really complete offensive game, whether it be driving to the basket or hitting the outside shot. We will look for a lot of contributions from her this season."
Meanwhile, the Irish get another multi-talented guard in Las Vegas native Breona Gray. A late signee with Notre Dame, Gray was a four-time all-state pick at Bishop Gorman High School, averaging 16.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game while guiding her team to the state semifinals three times. She also is a talented track star, having won the Nevada state title in the 400-meter run as a junior after placing second the previous year.
"Breona is similar to both Le'Tania and Monique in that she is going to be a great defender who can really get after people," McGraw said.
"She can control the tempo of the game, run the floor, score in transition and that's all going to be a big help to us when we go to our press."
Two other veterans who will lend added depth in the Irish backcourt are junior Jill Krause and senior Anne Weese. Krause, a two-time monogram winner from Glenview, Ill., has played in 32 games during her first two years at Notre Dame. Weese joined the Irish as a walk-on midway through last season and appeared in eight games.
"Jill is a very hard worker and a quick defender who doesn't get beat very often," McGraw noted.
"She has a great sense of the game and a sharp insight into what we're trying to accomplish.
"Anne also was a great contributor for us last year," McGraw continued.
"She has such a great attitude and works as hard as she can all the time. She is so upbeat and really cherishes her role as a walk-on. She's always searching for ways to help this team even when she's not getting a great deal of playing time. I think simply based on her attitude and her work ethic, she'll find a way to help us this year."
Although Notre Dame won't unveil its non-conference schedule until early September, the Irish already know the BIG EAST will be especially formidable this season. The league is coming off its most successful season ever in 2002-03, sending nine teams to the postseason, including seven to the NCAA Tournament and four to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Two-time national champion Connecticut joins Boston College and Villanova as regional semifinalists from the BIG EAST who will pay a visit to the Joyce Center this season. Two of the other three NCAA qualifiers from the conference (Miami and Virginia Tech) will come to South Bend this year, while the Irish will hit the road to meet the third NCAA participant, Rutgers.
Notre Dame earned an additional reward in June when it was selected as one of 16 host sites for the first two rounds of the 2004 NCAA Tournament. Should the Irish extend their streak of NCAA tourney appearances to nine consecutive years, they will be playing at home for the third time in five years. Notre Dame reached the Sweet Sixteen as the host school in 2000 and 2001, going on to win the national championship in the latter campaign.
"In order to be successful, you have to play the best teams in the country every year," McGraw said.
"We're fortunate enough to be playing in a conference that has produced the last four national champions, but we also realize that we need a tough non-conference schedule to get us ready for March. Our goal is to peak when the postseason rolls around, so the more we can do to prepare ourselves for the BIG EAST season, and the more that prepares us for the NCAA Tournament, the better off we're going to be."