Carolyn Hunter says, without equivocation, that she believes her Christopher Newport women's basketball team will be better than last year.
CNU's effective and effusive coach was quick to define her terms, since a trip to the memory bank reveals that last year's team finished 30-1. Confident as she is, she isn't so daft to predict that the Lady Captains' suffix this season will be "and-oh."
"I don't know that you can ever repeat something like that because it was such a special situation," Hunter said of last year's season that ended at the NCAA Sweet 16. "What we want to do is take a step and get deeper into the NCAA tournament."
All of the ingredients are in place. The top nine scorers are back, led by All-American Chelsie Schweers. Hunter also brought in a recruiting class in which at least three newcomers should push the veterans and contribute immediately.
The Lady Captains are ranked No. 4 in one Division III preseason poll and No. 6 in another. Talent and prospects aside, no one would be more surprised than Hunter if CNU approached last season's mark.
She purposely upgraded the schedule to challenge the team, beginning with the Nov. 18 season opener against Division II Virginia Union. There are non-conference games against three ranked teams and several other quality opponents, as well as a holiday tournament in Hawaii and an improved USA South.
"What we wanted to do as a team is schedule some tougher opponents that we hope will get us ready for the tournament," Hunter said.
Given the experience and the ultimate goal of a deep NCAA tournament run, how does the team remain in the moment and not look ahead prematurely to February and March?
"We know we had a good season, a special season," Schweers said. "But our goal this year, we want a shot at the national championship. With our goal being that high, that's what's kept us motivated, that's what's kept us going."
Hunter said that she had to do very little motivating during the summer or preseason. The upperclassmen, particularly Schweers and fellow team captain Jessica Moore, rallied the others.
Everyone returned in shape. Practices have been crisp and productive. Hunter said the team is probably two weeks ahead of where it normally is, due to the experience and level of focus.
"I feel like we have more talent, a better basketball IQ," Schweers said. "I think I have more help around me and we're a deeper team. I won't have to put up 25 points for us to win. The ultimate goal is not to worry about what I'm doing or look for me all the time, but for everybody to have confidence to take a shot or make a play when we need it."
Despite improved balance and talent, Schweers is the unquestioned centerpiece. The 5-foot-8 senior from Chesapeake averaged 24.5 points per game last season and stands at 1,999 points for her career, just 74 shy of Karen Barefoot's school record.
Though Schweers played on the perimeter, she shot a remarkable 52 percent from the field and 47.7 percent from 3-point range. She attempted more than one-fourth of the Lady Captains' shots and made 74 percent of their 3-pointers.
Schweers has bought into the notion of fewer minutes and fewer points leading to a greater goal. She averaged 35 minutes per game last season and said that by the end of the year she had tired legs.
"The goal for me is to be just as fresh at the end of the season as I am at the start of the season," she said. "I definitely think it's huge to be able to incorporate our bench."
Lack of quality depth likely ended CNU's season last spring. In the NCAA loss, the Lady Captains' bench was outscored by the University of Rochester's 24-9 in a five-point defeat. Hunter said that it's not unusual for Final Four teams to go 10-12 players deep.
"I knew I needed to go get more players," she said.
The success of the present group helped Hunter procure more talent. Moore, a 5-10 senior from Fredericksburg, is the only other double-figure scorer (11.8 ppg), while junior wing Kimmy Hopkins (9.6 ppg) and senior forward Barbara Davis (8.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg) have contributed since they arrived.
The only weakness is the lack of a true post presence. The 6-foot Davis is the closest thing to a center on a team chock full of guards and wings. That's not likely to be a major hindrance until they face national competition, which gives them time to adjust and adapt.
"The challenge is to look at ourselves and make ourselves better," Hunter said. "If I can get them to look at themselves and at us as a team, instead of our opponent, that will really help us stay focused. We have a big target on our backs this season and we know we're going to take everybody's best shot."
Experienced CNU women hope to step forward
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