Opening Day, Texas Basketball Style
AUSTIN, Texas -- The pursuit of championships begin on the practice court, and Saturday, it was a high level of intensity that set the tone for the 2004-05 Texas women's basketball team.
Jody Conradt's squad took to the floor promptly at 10:00 a.m. for the first official practice (Oct. 16) of the season. The fast-paced, intense workout which emcompassed nearly three hours saw Conradt and her staff emphasizing teamwork, communication, running drills, sprints and more sprints, and back to communication and connection on the court.
The practice, open to the public, drew over 100 fans eager to see the Longhorns as the squad, 30-5 a year ago, defends its back-to-back Big 12 regular season championships. In addition, Conradt's squad, highly-ranked a year ago and considered a challenger for the NCAA championship, made a third straight trip to the NCAA Sweet 16 - a strong finish, but not strong enough in the minds of anyone associated with the Longhorns program.
In addressing the media after the three-hour workout, Conradt made it very clear that the Longhorns have specific goals in mind for 2004-05.
"First, of all, don't you think I gave them a light workout today?, Conradt laughingly asked the media - referring to the full-court, fast-breaking three hours of non-stop action which had just concluded. "I think you can tell by the attitude out here today that we are serious about getting down to business and setting high goals. It was really, really fun to be back out here, and we had a high level of enthusiasm and excitement from all the players. What you saw today was a pretty good effort. They worked hard and worked a lot on communication, which is one of our main focuses as we start the year."
"We have an opportunity to be really good this year," Conradt noted. "In the back of our minds - and this is not something we've spent any time talking about yet - we are thinking about championships. The Big 12 Conference is one of the toughest, if not THE most competitive, leagues in the country, and if we can achieve success in the Big 12, then that sets us up to achieve during the NCAA Tournament.
"However, right now, those are just dreams," concluded Conradt. "The reality is practice and getting down to business and working hard every day. We made a good start today."
Junior guard Nina Norman (Houston, Texas), a two-year starter, concurred with Conradt's assessment about the emphasis on communication.
"That was a really tough practice today, and we needed it to be. We've been talking since last spring about how important good communication will be. Every time today we had a breakdown in helping each other out or talking, the whistle blew and we knew what was coming - running and full-court sprints, back to back to back, to help drive home the fact that we need to support each other and talk. Right now, our focus in early practices is to see where everyone can contribute to the team. We are working on meshing early on. We are playing with lots of veterans, but we'll miss Stacy (Stephens) out there and we have to learn to play without her in the post."
Conradt also made mention of starting the year without Stephens, the All-America and All-Big 12 standout in the post who completed her eligibility last year as the No. 2 all-time rebounder and No. 8 career scorer in Texas history, and how the team was going to adjust to her absence.
"You know it's not a happy day as a coach to turn to the court and realize that for the first time in four years you don't have Stacy Stephens on the floor. We will be changing things offensively this year to counteract her loss. Stacy would always draw a crowd down low, draw a double-team, and then she was such a good passer and would kick the ball out to the perimeter players to set up a scoring chance. Now, we are working on screens and getting our perimeter players open, another objective of ours as we change up our offense."
Senior forward Heather Schreiber (Windthorst, Texas) talked about the expectations facing the Longhorns and adjusting to the loss of four-year starter Stephens.
"First, we are so excited to get out here and practice as a team! I've been waiting for this day since the NCAA Tournament loss last year," noted Schreiber, who claimed AP All-America Honorable Mention honors a year ago and who, along with fellow senior Jamie Carey (Thornton, Colo.) and sophomore forward Tiffany Jackson (Dallas, Texas) are preseason candidates for the Wooden and State Farm Wade Trophy National Player of the Year honors. "We are looking to prove that we can handle pressure and meet expectations and defend our Big 12 championships. We are working on being tougher, physically and mentally, because the season is a long haul. We didn't handle that very well last year, and now, we are working hard to get mentally tougher. We worked a lot on offense today, since we lost such a good player in Stacy. Now, we've changed up the offense, and are working hard on our break and pushing the ball. Our commitment to having a great year started today."
Conradt summed up the first practice by again talking about commitment across the board.
"Right now, it's a matter of coming to practice every day with the focus of everyone contributing to the team effort and staying committed. The mental part of the game is so important. We need improvement in our mental preparation; everyone has agreed to work on it daily. We need to be ready to come out and play hard every game, because this year we are not going to slip up on any one. Everyone knows about Texas Basketball, and we like it that way. With the expectations comes pressure, and we are going to work on handling that pressure better than we have in the past. Today was a good start in that direction."
The Longhorns will return to the practice court on Sunday, Oct. 17 for an afternoon practice (beginning at 3 p.m.) at Cooley Pavilion. All of the UT women's basketball practices are open to the public.