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Fierce and competitive with “no holds barred” will likely reflect the tone of preseason practices as one senior, forward Michaela “Mixu” Moua, will anchor a squad comprised of nine first or second-year players, including five freshmen.

On paper, losing four seniors, including leading scorer, rebounder and two-time, first team all-Big Ten member Marrita Porter, leaves big shoes to fill. Figure into the equation, however, the addition of the No. 2-ranked freshman class in the country, united with an already talented group of players, and this unit emerges as the most talented group head coach Beth Burns has had the opportunity to mold in her three-year tenure.

In addition to Porter, are senior teammates Roslyn Barker, Mindy Fusetti and Larecha Jones. Reserves Megan McCabe and Kylee Bogott will not return to the squad.

“Marrita was, by far, our most consistent performer the past two seasons,” Burns said. “Her back-to-back Big Ten honors, while being our focal point, was well deserved. Everything we did offensively revolved around Marrita’s abilities.

“Mixu was our Most Improved Player and co-Defensive Player Of The Year. The addition of our freshmen, coupled with the experience all the returnees received, will allow us to be more balanced.

“Without question, rules need to be developed and refined but that’s why we came to Ohio State, to meet that challenge.

“We will have a different look that will feature our overall team speed. As good as Marrita was, her legs did not allow her to run. We would like to think we will be able to create more of our offense from our defense which we couldn’t do a year ago.

“Our team has also been advantaged by having the National Champion in our conference. We played Purdue three times. That experience, used to our advantage, will be immeasurable.”

NEW MILLENNIUM BUCKEYES
The returning Buckeyes at a glance feature Moua and Courtney Bale at forward, Lauren Shenk, Tomeka Brown, and Mandy Stanhope at guard, and Laura Ingham and Jamie Lewis at point guard. Consensus All-America center LaToya Turner, forwards Courtney Coleman, DiDi Reynolds, and Dwan Shackleford, and point guard Tanya McClure comprise the incoming all-Ohio class. Injuries will overshadow the early success of this squad as Turner and Lewis have both undergone surgery to repair torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL). McClure has worked her way back from a hamstring injury which shortened her prep campaign. Bale was idled through June with a tibial stress fracture. Despite these setbacks, Burns remains optimistic.

“Injuries happen and there is nothing to be gained from looking back,” Burns said. “Our doctors are pleased with the approach each athlete has taken to their rehab and although putting a timetable on anything is most difficult, we’re confident everyone will emerge bigger, faster, stronger and quicker than they were. We all need to be patient.

“The only way to gain experience is to play, and we are counting on everyone to contribute. We know and trust our talent level, what we don’t know is our learning quotient. As quickly as we can pick things up is as quickly as we can improve as a team. It is an exciting challenge. “Mixu is our most experienced player, and at 5 feet-11 inches tall, plays predominately inside. I wouldn’t trade her for anyone. There is competition at every position, beginning with the point guard spot right through the center. That creates a hunger within your team. “We’ve made great progress defensively over the past two years but we must improve our rebounding. Each of our players knows that the quickest path to the court is going to be largely determined by who wants to go to the glass. On paper, we’ve recruited to attack this need. Final decisions aren’t made on paper. It’s all going to be decided on the basketball court.”

IN THE FRONTCOURT
Moua emerges as the most experienced frontliner on the squad. An honorable mention all-Big Ten honoree, Moua averaged 10.6 ppg (.600) in four of seven games as a starter. Her scoring average jumped to 11.3 ppg with 73 percent accuracy over three games of postseason play. Burns sees Moua’s unmatched intensity, leadership and work ethic as key elements to the Buckeyes’ success.

“I have absolute confidence in her. She plays with relentless effort and epitomizes our ‘defense wins’ phliosophy, ” Burns added. “I’ll depend on her tremendously for her vocal leadership on the court, that’s what we’ll need.”

Moua will share the duties of captain with Bale, who is donning the Scarlet and Gray for the first time after transferring from San Diego State in ’98.

Patience has truely become a virtue for Bale, a 6-2 junior. Since coming to Columbus she’s had to endure the agony of sitting out a full season, and then seeing her practice time scaled back to allow a stress fracture in her left tibia to heal.

While an Aztec, Bale prevailed as the No. 1 rebounder (7.2 rpg) and second-leading scorer (11.3 ppg) in her sophomore campaign. As a freshman in Burns’ final year on the San Diego campus, she contributed to a sqaud which won the WAC championship (23-7) and advanced into NCAA postseason play.

“I’ve been waiting three years to coach Courtney again,” Burns said with a smile. “She has dramatically improved her strength, leaping ability and quickness. She’ll impact us with her experience level.

“Courtney and Mixu will be great leaders. I totally trust that they will be great role models for our younger players, along with our other returnees.”

So. Lauren Shenk

Last season, Shenk emerged as the Buckeyes’outside scoring threat where 50 percent of her attempts came from outside the arc. In Big Ten play, the 5-10 sophomore ranked as the No. 3 shooter in 3-point proficiency (.382). Over the summer, Shenk toured Belgium and Germany as a member of the Big Ten All-Stars. She paced the unit with an 11.0 scoring clip.

“Lauren gained invaluable experience as a freshman and developed into our most consistent perimeter shooter,” Burns stated. “One area that’s overlooked is how good a passer she is. Given her development she’s going to be more confident to do the things she’s capable of. Lauren is driven to excel.”

NEW TO THE FRONTLINE
The all-Ohio Class of 2003 packs plenty of talent, drive and enthusiasm along the frontline with the influx of forwards Courtney Coleman, DiDi Reynolds and Dwan Shackleford and center LaToya Turner.

Coleman, 6-2, possesses all the tools necessary to become an explosive scorer and dominating rebounder. A product of Cincinnati Hughes, she ranked as the sixth-leading rebounder in the state last season, collecting 15.9 caroms per game.

“Courtney was a very important sign for us because we really felt that with Dwan’s and DiDi’s ability to play more small forward, and LaToya’s ability to play big, that Courtney was a true power forward,” Burns said. “Her biggest strength was our biggest weakness in that she averaged almost 16 rebounds per game in a very competitive league.”

Shackleford, a standout at Newark, will fit in nicely with Burns’ vision for play on the block. With her six-foot, 165-pound frame and athleticism, the Buckeyes’ rebounding game will be greatly impacted.

Reynolds, 6-1, is the Division IV Player of the Year out of Hopewell-Loudon. Touting keen offensive and defensive skills, she experienced one of the most unique runs en route to claiming the school’s first-ever title, with her father, Doug, serving as head coach and her sister, Danielle, alongside as a teammate. The Chieftains displayed a potent offense, averaging 85.3 ppg with Reynolds registering the state’s highest individual scoring average of 25.2 ppg, heading into the championship.

“‘Shack’ reminded me of Mixu,” Burns said. “She has a little bit more size and can play both small and power forward, and is capable of playing bigger than she is because of her athletic ability. She has alot of versatility and will help us in alot of ways.

“DiDi was everything we like to look for in a prospect — good frame, long arms, quickness, runs the floor really well. She likes to score and has great instinct around the basket. “To me, the extra benefit is that she is a coach’s daughter on one of the best running high school teams that I’ve ever seen. Her dad is a very good coach and she has played in a system very similar to what were going to ask her to do.”

Turner tore her left ACL in May at the WBCA All-Star Game and in time, her extraordinary scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking abilities will be unvieled. At 6-4, Turner displays a reach of 8-feet-1 inch and a wing span of 6-feet-8 inches.

As a prepster, Turner was hailed as one of the elite centers in the country. The Division I co-Player of the Year helped guide the famed Pickerington High School program to its sixth state championship and first national title, contributing 20.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game.

“What separates her is that she is not only a shot-blocker but one who runs the floor well,” Burns said. “She has the ability to block a shot, keep it in play, get back down to the other end and finish. Her focal point, in addition to her rehabilitation, is her strength and conditioning. That will make her whole game get that much better.

“I said from the moment that ‘Toya’ sustained her injury, ‘alot of people are strong when things are going well but you find that your winners in this world are the ones who can accept and meet their challenges.’

“Toya is going to be a great player for Ohio State. We’ll take it one day at a time. Expect her to be tenacious in her rehabilitation, expect her teammates to be supportive. She’s got everything in her corner. She will only emerge from this a stronger person,” Burns said.

IN THE BACKCOURT
The backcourt suffered a setback in July when two-year starting point guard Jamie Lewis (7.4 ppg) underwent surgery to repair the ACL in her right knee. Lewis, 5-5, has fought and won similar battles, having sat out her junior season at Oak Hill (Ohio) High School following surgery to repair the left ACL.

While the Buckeyes’ 13th all-time assists leader (281) continues her rehabilitation, Burns will tap into the talents of guards Laura Ingham (1.4) and freshman Tanya McClure (15.0). Tomeka Brown (4.4) and Mandy Stanhope (1.7) will assist at the two-guard spot.

Ingham, 5-3, has the potential to be a dominating force at the point. Ingham has pushed herself over the past six months to return to practice in superb condition and capable of securing a starting spot. She claimed The Most Improved Lifter award at the end of the team’s spring heptathlon.

“Where Tomeka and Lauren steadily improved as the season progressed, Laura grew up a lifetime this spring,” Burns said. “She has more in her repertoire than she showed a year ago. She must have a perimeter game and has worked hard on her outside shot. Her speed will dictate that people will have to give her room and knock down open shots.”

McClure, 5-6, will transfer her talents as an explosive playmaker and solid decision-maker to the Buckeye backcourt. She was hampered in her senior campaign at Gahanna-Lincoln with a hamstring injury but is expected to contribute from the start of practice.

“Tanya does a lot of things that you can’t teach. She understands the game and her tenacity and competitiveness is off the scale,” Burns said.

So. Tomeka Brown

Athleticism and defensive prowess go hand in hand with Brown, 5-9. Brown improved her vertical jump two inches to a school-record 31.5 while championing the spring heptathlon and has the weapons to hurt an opponent in a variety of ways. Burns added, “Tomeka might be one of the most gifted pure athletes we’ve ever had in our program. I would like to see her contribute more as a rebounder. I think her offensive game will continue to develop.”

The 5-6 Stanhope is a student of the game who has played at both the one and two guard spots, both as a starter and a reserve.

“Mandy had a very good spring and has really improved her strength with a 28-inch vertical jump. She’s worked this summer on getting her shot off quicker and shooting from ‘three’, and knows that it’s probably the area where she can contribute the most. I have full confidence in her.”

One unique aspect about the Class of ’03 is its familiarity with the seasoned team members. Turner, Shackleford and McClure are all alumnae of the Ohio Capital Conference, while all five have competed with or against one another on the AAU level. Reynolds and Shenk were district rivals in high school and shared Player of the Year laurels in ’98. Brown and Shenk played with Turner and McClure on the 1998 AAU Dayton Lady Hoopstars National Championship Team. “I have stressed with our older players that our familiarity with each other is the single most important factor to this team,” Burns said. “Great basketball takes time. You have to have team chemistry.

“I sense in all of our signees that they know they need more than themselves to recognize their athletic goals which is to win a Big Ten and national championship. They appreciate each other’s strength. That single factor, and their ability to develop what they have on their own without distraction and interruption, will determine how quickly we become a team.” The Buckeyes tip off their schedule with a bang in November, hosting the USA Basketball National Team in exhibition play with Buckeye All-American Katie Smith in tow.

Ohio State will utilize its homecourt advantage where an average 7,588 fans per game backed the Buckeyes last season, a mark which ranked sixth in the country. Each of its non-league contests will be played in Columbus with tournaments scheduled at Harvard after Thanksgiving and at Long Beach State prior to Christmas.

The Big Ten Conference will implement a new format this season, adopting a Thursday-Sunday format vs. the previous Friday-Sunday series. The Buckeyes will play home and away series with Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana, and play single games vs. Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern.

The conference has also moved its postseason venue from the RCA Dome to Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis where the year-end tourney will be held March 2-5.