Doubtersprovide motivation for much-maligned program
Newcomers add scoring threat to SDSU’s alreadyimposing defense
By Michael KlitzingAssistant Sports Editor
A team cannot thrive on talent alone. Over the course of a longseason, a little something extra is needed — motivation.
As San Diego State began practices in October, that motivation wasthere in black and white. In a preseason poll of Mountain WestConference media, SDSU was picked to finish seventh.
“It is motivation,” guard Claire Swinbank said. “It’s the samestory every year. We don’t want to finish where everybody thinkswe’re going to finish.”
Butif the Aztecs are to avoid their predicted fate, one facet of theteam’s game must be shored up: scoring.
Defense carried SDSU to a 13-14 regular season record last year,but a suspect offense led to an early exit in the Mountain WestTournament — a 55-49 first-round loss to New Mexico.
But the Aztecs, who sport a strong class of newcomers coupled withan experienced core of returnees, feel the improvement will come.
“Last year, our main strength and what kept us in the game was ourdefense,” forward Atim Otii said. “Now we’ll have a balance withpeople who can score — and the defense can be as intense or evenmore.”
If Otii’s impressions prove accurate, the Aztecs may be able tofinish higher than expected — and make the doubters eat their words.
As the 2000-01 season progressed, SDSU’s most utilized forwardsseemed to be heading in opposite directions.
Tanisha Knight all but disappeared from the Aztecs’ radar screenat the start of conference play. Before New Year’s Day, thesix-footer from Long Beach had scored in double figures in all ofSDSU’s 11 games, averaging 13.9 points.
But the new year would not be a good one for Knight. She scored indouble figures just once in the Aztecs’ final 14 contests.
“Toward the end of last season, her game disappeared,” head coachBarb Smith said. “We’re waiting for ‘T’ to step it up and play a bitharder.”
Meanwhile,Otii, already known for her defensive prowess, was coming into herown on the offensive end. She averaged 9.6 points in conference play.
SDSU also has a wealth of talent off the bench in the middle.Sophomore center/forward Nicolette McCartny, who is currentlyrehabilitating an ankle injury, and sharp-shooting junior-collegetransfer Ashonda Williams will play key roles.
Augmenting the abundance of talent at forward is a center who maybe on the verge of coming into her own. Senior Morgan Vargas, asix-foot-four transfer from New Mexico Junior College, can be excusedfor producing little on the floor last season — she had just givenbirth to her daughter Emily in August.
And compared to one year ago, Vargas’ physical condition is nightand day.
“I feel a thousand times better,” she said. “Last season, I wouldrun up and down the floor once and get winded. I’m back to where Iwas (before the pregnancy) and maybe better.”
The Aztecs took a hit at the guard position with the graduation ofSophia Sledge — one of their few offensive play-makers. But there isan abundanceof talent and experience still present.
Junior Jamey Cox has already made an impact in her two seasons atMontezuma Mesa, leading the team in scoring both years. Herperformance in crunch time, however, will have to improve. In twocareer tournament games, she is 3 of 20 from the floor.
Joining Cox on the perimeter is Swinbank. The 5-foot-8 Texanreturned to the Aztecs last season after sitting out the 1999-2000campaign and made an immediate impact, averaging 8.1 points.
But aside from Cox and Swinbank, SDSU’s back-court isinexperienced and unproven. Among the players Smith expects to stepforward is freshman Heather Wolf.
Few could fault the media members for picking the Aztecs to finishseventh. Much of the MWC looks to be back at full strength, if notimproved and SDSU’s track-record over the last four years is spottyat best.
But after just nine wins in 1999-2000, few predicted the Aztecs towin as many as 13 games last season. Another four-win improvementthis year would constitute a solid winning campaign, silencing thedoubters.
And we know they have the motivation.