Entering last season, the Cavalier women's basketball team had high expectations for the NCAA Tournament. After a 20-9 regular season mark, however, and a second-place finish in the ACC with a 12-4 record, the postseason ended with a disappointing loss in the first round against Penn State. It also marked the first time the team failed to reach the second round of the Tournament since 1986.
This season, the Cavs have lost Leslie Brown, Monick Foote and DeMya Walker, three of the top four players from last year. Walker, a two-time first team All-ACC player, led the team in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage last year.
These losses and failing to make this year's preseason AP poll have not destroyed the hopes of this year's team, however.
Cav Coach Debbie Ryan, who has led Virginia to 16 straight NCAA tournaments, believes that the underdog status will allow the Cavs to focus on the leadership, chemistry and positive attitudes necessary for success.
"This team is a really cohesive group," Ryan said. "It might not be as talented as last year's team or the team before that, but I'm not sure that's going to make a difference. We may win more games because of our cohesion and our leadership."
Although Ryan has not yet specified the starting lineup, there are many talented players who will contribute to the team, including 10 returning letterwinners and three newcomers.
Third-year guard Erin Stovall is the top returning scorer with 14.5 points per game. Last season, she was an ACC third-team selection; this year she is a preseason selection to the All-Conference first team. Dangerous everywhere on the court, Stovall is also one of the fastest in the ACC.
As the top returning post player, fourth-year captain Lisa Hosac is expected to be a dominant rebounding force. Last year, she was third in rebounds, with 4.4 per game. With the departures of Walker and Brown, however, she will have to be even more effective on the boards.
"I know I needed to crash [the boards] a lot harder than I have been," Hosac said. "Obviously the big void DeMya left was rebounding. It's something a lot of us are going to have to pick up."
The Cavs also will look to third-year center Elena Kravchenko to score down low. At 6-foot-10, Kravchenko is the tallest female in Division I basketball.
Third-years Dean'na Mitchelson, Svetlana Volnaya and Chalois Lias will also contribute at forward.
Fourth-year Renee Robinson returns at the starting point guard position, after having led the team in assists last season and working to improve her play this summer.
Backing up Robinson at point guard is second-year Telisha Quarles, who had a solid freshman year, marked by her passing skills. Ryan said she has high expectations for the Louisa, Va., native and hopes she will gain confidence through experience this year.
"I think Telisha is a fantastic athlete, and I wish she would realize it," Ryan said. "I don't think anybody should be able to drive by her in any situation. Running the team and playing good defense are two of the areas she's got to get better with."
Fourth-year Lauren Swierczek and third-year Katie Tracy, who also plays at midfield for the women's soccer team, will further bolster the Cav backcourt.
Ryan also recognizes potential in the three newcomers - Anna Crosswhite, Marcie Dickson and Schuye LaRue. LaRue enters Charlottesville as the most highly touted of the trio: Blue Star Recruiting ranked her as the 17th-best prospect in the nation.
The Cavs have had two exhibition games - the first against the U.S. women's national team and the second against the Vologda Russian squad. While both games gave Virginia some experience, Ryan said the team will learn more from the 96-44 loss to the national team in the long run.
"It's a tool to learn that this is how it's done on the highest level," Ryan said. "I think our team will really take a lot away from that game all year long."
This season's schedule is demanding, with five match-ups against 1999 NCAA Sweet Sixteen teams and four more against teams that went to the NCAA Tournament. The opening game against St. Joseph's is Sunday, last year's 1999 Atlantic 10 champion.
"We've played teams at kind of both ends of the spectrum" in the preseason, Hosac said. "Sunday will definitely be a really good test for us. We know they're a very good team. That'll be our first real test to really see where we're at."