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Virginia faces first foe

Boyle begins coaching career with game against Mountaineers tonight

The Virginia women's basketball team opens its season at home tonight against Appalachian State in a game which will offer both a snapshot of where it is and a glimpse of what it wants to become.

Many pundits have labeled 2011-12 a "transition" or "rebuilding" year for the Cavaliers as coach Joanne Boyle replaces the legendary Debbie Ryan, who led the program for the past 34 years.

Although it will take time for a new coaching staff to install its system, Boyle plans to "tweak" her game plan to cater to Virginia's experienced core.

The team returns its top four scorers from last season in senior guard Ariana Moorer, sophomore forward Ataira Franklin, senior forward Chelsea Shine and junior guard China Crosby, who alongside leading rebounder junior center Simone Egwu, form a balanced and veteran Cavalier starting lineup.

The team's potential is apparent, but so are its shortcomings as it seems to lack a true go-to scorer and depth off the bench. The team finished eighth in the ACC a year ago and is picked to finish eighth again in this year's preseason poll.

"We were picked to finish 10th in the conference last year," Shine said. "I don't think we pay attention to that because that's what people say about us, but it's really in our hands. We're striving to finish at the top of the conference, so now we can play as underdogs."

After announcing that she had secured a top 20 recruiting class for the 2012-13 season Wednesday, Boyle can imagine a few years down the road when her nationally acclaimed recruiting classes come to fruition and result in ACC dominance. She envisions an athletic team with a deep bench, a team which is swarming on defense and a terror on the boards - one which is more substance than style.

"I think first and foremost, we need to play great defense and rebound the ball," Boyle said. "We want to get early transition buckets when we can, but if that's not happening, we just need to put them in a system where they can feel comfortable enough to score. We have a limited bench and we need more athleticism to run the way I want to run, but I think we can pick and choose our time to run."

When Boyle and her team stare down the Appalachian State bench tonight, they will see a coach who also entered a program in flux, but whose patience ultimately paid dividends.

In 2008, when Appalachian State head coach Darcie Vincent left California University of Pennsylvania for a chance to coach Division I basketball, she inherited an 8-22 team which ranked dead last in scoring defense. The coaching change injected optimism into the struggling program but offered little initial returns, as the team finished 9-22 and finished next to last in scoring defense.

Flash forward to 2011 and the team's turnaround has been dramatic, as Vincent has earned back-to-back Southern Conference Coach of the Year awards while leading her squad to a 25-7 record and first place in the Southern Conference last season. During last year's record-breaking season, Appalachian State notched a 12-game winning streak, knocked off ACC powerhouse Wake Forest and set a new team mark with 25 wins and 17 conference wins in a single season. The team led the Southern Conference with a .453 field goal percentage, 13 steals and 18.4 assists on average, finishing third and fifth in the nation in steals and assists, respectively.

So while the focus of Boyle and the Cavaliers' is firmly on posting a win in their season opener, the Mountaineers also provide a tangible example of how a program can evolve and excel.

"I think our better basketball is down the road," Boyle said. "[T]hey haven't played any games or done anything under [this coaching staff], so it's going to be about just getting some games underneath our belt"

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