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Ryan's Cavaliers reach a crossroads: once dominant program must reemerge as a national heavyweight again or threaten fading into mediocrity

When the women's basketball team officially started practice Saturday, it also took the first step into one of the program's most important seasons to date.

The Cavaliers have come to a proverbial fork in the road. They stand at a virtual crossroads where one path will make all the difference. One direction leads the Cavs in a return to the nation's elite. The other propels Virginia along a path of mediocrity and perhaps obscurity.

Since taking over in 1977, Cavalier Coach Debbie Ryan has racked up over 500 victories in her career. In her time at the helm, Virginia has made one trip to the national title game, as well as three Final Four and six Elite Eight appearances.

Each of those is an impressive accomplishment, and it is easy to give credit where credit is due. The program made continual strides to the top of the heap.

But the bottom line is that the one National Championship appearance and the three Final Fours all came in succession from 1989-1992.

Since then, the Cavaliers have not returned; the program has begun to slip back toward the middle of the pack.

Yes, the Cavs have been successful. Last season they finished 20-9, a respectable record by all accounts. However, from 1989-1995, the Cavaliers were winning at least 26 games per season.

Virginia has not made an Elite Eight appearance since the 1995-96 season. In fact, those three years since featured losses in either the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament. At an initial glance, that may not seem too bad. But when you take into account that the Cavs made nine consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances before that, it is noticeably worse.

With all that in mind, one must wonder if this gradual slide to mediocrity will become an avalanche to anonymity.

It would be easy to justify the end of the streak as a fluke: someone pulled off an upset in the tourney. It happens. The three-year absence, on the other hand, indicates more of a trend.

And to add insult to injury, the fact remains that the Cavaliers had the talent to make a return to the Final Four. Graduates Tora Suber and Monick Foote had the ability to score, to create their own shot. DeMya Walker swatted shots routinely before graduating in May, and throughout her career she was quicker and more athletic than most opposing centers.

In any of those years, the supporting cast was impressive as well. Take last year, for example. Foes could not keep up with Erin Stovall's dizzying speed. Lisa Hosac's inside-outside ability frustrated defenders. Svetlana Volnaya is an aggressive player with a competitive edge. Chalois Lias is as athletic as anyone to ever put on the Cavalier uniform. The result: a No. 8 seed and a first-round, NCAA loss to Penn State, 82-69.

Something is wrong with that picture. Virginia had the raw talent and ability to make a run back to the Sweet Sixteen at a bare minimum. Instead, the Cavaliers had a third-place Conference regular season finish, an ACC Tournament loss in the semifinals (the Cavs narrowly beat Wake Forest to advance to that stage) and the defeat by Penn State in the NCAA. The problem arose from the fact that there was a general lack of team chemistry and players that couldn't play together.

The three-year slide has created ripple effects in the program. Top-notch recruits routinely have gone elsewhere, most notably Tennessee. If the slip continues, more recruits will shun the Cavs, adding to the downward spiral.

So with all that said, with a three-year drought from the top of the heap in progress, with a disturbing movement toward the bottom, practice is underway. Virginia stares squarely at the fork in the road and now a decision must be made, one question must be answered.

Will the program take the road less traveled by with the nation's top teams or will it take the one to obscurity?


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