Oct. 11, 2001
As they do every year, injuries play a significant role in a team's success. And although the Broncos did post a fourth-straight 20-win season and trip to the postseason last year, the team was hit hard by injuries. Torn ACLs, bulging disks, sprained ankles all played a part in shuffling the Bronco lineup. In fact, at the beginning of the season, Santa Clara spent two weeks with just seven players suiting up for games. Add the graduation of three starters and a torn ACL during the offseason for a returner and another one for an incoming freshman, and at first glance, one might think this isn't going to be the season for the Broncos. But think again.
Although the Broncos did lose three starters, including three-time West Coast Conference first team honoree Annie Garrison, the team also sees itself as returning three starters, as junior Tammy Annas returns to the lineup. Annas redshirted the 2000-01 season after tearing her ACL just four days before practices were to begin. A starter as a sophomore, Annas' full recovery will add stronger scoring and rebounding advantages to the team.
"We've had our share of injuries," head coach Chris Denker said. "Once we get everybody back, our season's going to come down to when we can gel as a team and start playing our best basketball. It's hard to anticipate what to expect because we haven't seen everybody at their healthiest, but we've seen the potential and we're excited and anxious to get on with the season. Being healthy is going to be a key component to our season."
In addition to staying healthy, the team needs to get off to a good start, for it has a tough schedule and a tough schedule early. The Broncos open against Utah at the Sheraton Four Points Classic, with the Utes coming off one of their best seasons, an appearance in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Santa Clara could also face the Big Ten's Minnesota in that invitational, and the week after, face a possible showdown with Pac-10 champion Washington, an NCAA Elite Eight Team in 2001, at the Seattle Times Husky Classic. With nine players from the state of Washington and one each from Oregon and Alaska on the Bronco roster, that Thanksgiving tournament should see a large SCU contingent in the stands. Jumping around, the Broncos also have Stanford, TCU and Temple on their schedule, before heading into what could be the toughest competition for West Coast Conference bragging rights the league has ever seen, as three other squads posted 20-win seasons in addition to SCU last year.
"The schedule's going to be tough," Denker said. "We're going to need to play well early, but at the same time, one of our goals is to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season. We want to win the WCC Tournament Championship and go to the NCAA Tournament, so we need to balance both goals."
One of the things that will help in that regard is the team's depth situation. With injuries to key players last season, Denker had to do some shuffling position-wise, hurting his team's depth. Injuries to last year's freshman class took away any additional depth and left the Broncos juggling its roster for much of the year. This season, not only has the team recovered its depth, but Denker's coaching staff has brought in a talented incoming trio of freshmen.
"We feel really good about our recruiting class," Denker said. " The kids we're bringing in now are all able to play for us and challenge for playing time. That's only going to make us better. They're going to push the other players in practice and that's going to lend to a better overall development of our team. And, if we need to go to our bench during a game, I have better confidence this year that we'll be able to do that. It will be a slightly more inexperienced bench, but the talent will make up for it."
Other areas Denker said he sees encouragement in with the 2001-02 squad is overall team size and the ability to shoot the three. With 10 players over 5-10, including three backcourt players, the team is returning to the size it had in the mid 1990s. Additionally, Denker sees his team returning to being ranked in the top-10 nationally in three-point percentage, with the return of Annas and the addition of some talented perimeter players.
The Bronco BackcourtLeading the Broncos in the backcourt are two experienced senior guards in Becki Ashbaugh and Caroline Gruening. Ashbaugh returns for a second year as the team's captain and has started all but one game in her collegiate career.
"Any coach that looks at its team and sees a four-year starter and point guard already feels like he's off to a good start," Denker said. "Just the stability and the knowledge of the game and everything she brings to us is going to be really good for our team."
Gruening earned honorable mention all West Coast Conference honors last season and is the team's leading returning scorer. A walk-on as a freshmen, Gruening enters her senior season as one of the team's captains.
"Caroline's a tremendous leader and probably the hardest worker on our team," Denker added. "So again, you look at those two leading your backcourt and you have to feel really stable."
After a year rehabilitating a knee injury, Annas returns to the three spot for her junior year. Annas will bring invaluable experience to the Bronco lineup, having started a few games as a freshman and 20 of 30 as a sophomore. In addition to her experience, Denker added, Annas' athleticism, strength, rebounding abilities and scoring capabilities will be valuable to the team's success this season.
Also in the mix is junior Jennifer Bradley. Denker said he believes she's ready for a breakout season, after coming off the bench and making key contributions, including a 17-point outburst against Cal Poly. Sophomore Jennie Rondel will be used mostly in the post, but can also drive and shoot the three, opening more options for Denker. Fellow sophomore Alex Gientke saw limiting playing time last season after battling through numerous injuries and will be spending the preseason returning to a healthy status. Redshirt freshman Megan Nelson is one of the team's taller guards at 5-10, and is described by Denker as one of the fastest players and better defenders on the team.
"Last year at times, we had a little bit of a tough time scoring." Denker said. "We had to run plays and manipulate the system to get a basket. Megan's the type of player that can just get her hand on a ball and score. We're excited about that."
In addition to the returning guards, two incoming all-state players from Washington will also make an impact, Kayla Huss of Everett and Quinn Thomas of Kent. Although both played point guard for their respective high school teams, Denker said he will keep Huss at the point position and move Thomas to more a combo guard position.
"Both are extremely good scorers and can shoot the three well," Denker said. "We're excited for the future and I think a lot of people are going to like watching Kayla and Quinn play. They both have a really good opportunity to earn some playing time as freshmen."
Redshirting this season is Whitney Sutak, a junior transfer from Utah.
The Bronco FrontcourtWith the loss of starters Annie Garrison and Jennifer Glysson, Denker said the Broncos' post position is one that he thinks a lot of people might look at and wonder about. "We do too," he quipped. But at the same, Denker and his staff has seen his players practice everyday and know what they're capable of.
Take for instance, last season at Pepperdine. Leading scorer Garrison did not earn any points from the field, but then-sophomores Kendra Rhea and Julie Butler stepped up with 16 and six points respectively. With 11 starts between them last season, the two are the most experienced returners and have seen the most playing time.
"The biggest struggle Kendra and Julie are going to face is not playing in Annie's shadow anymore." Denker explained. "Everybody was always double-teaming Annie, but now, Kendra and Julie are going to be the focal points of our opponents. It's not an easy adjustment for anybody to make, but I'm confident our girls will respond. Additionally, Julie can really run and is good on the low block and developed her high-post shooting over the last year while Kendra can drive. We'll need both of them carry us rebounding wise."
Like Bradley, Denker is expecting junior Courtney Cushing to have a breakout year. As one of the team's most fundamentally sound post players, Cushing's extra summer work in conditioning should expand on the solid performances she showed last season.
Rondel will join in the frontcourt mix, as will Butler's younger sister Kim, an incoming freshman from Tacoma. The younger Butler is described by Denker as a rugged player that can grab rebounds. He added that she will also be able to use her all-state soccer skills in moving around the court.
"Kim will fit into our system really well," Denker said, "but the big question mark is her knee. She tore her ACL last winter, so we're hoping she'll be ready to go in time and contribute."