|Christmas in October|
It's been 205 days since the Idaho women's basketball team ended its 2011-12 season, and after a long offseason, fifth-year head coach Jon Newlee couldn't be more excited to get official team practices underway Monday.
"It's like Christmas morning," Newlee said. "You've seen all these presents wrapped up, now you get to unwrap them and see what you've got. It's the most exciting day of the year."
As many as eight players could see action a Vandal for the first time in in 2012-13, but it didn't feel like Newlee would be grooming a large crop of newcomers Monday.
That's because this group of newcomers features several familiar faces, and a whole lot of chemistry. Freshman Natalie Lainhart, sophomore Maren Austgulen and junior Addie Schivo all spent last season with the Vandals despite not playing a game. Lainhart added a year of eligibility to the end of her career by taking a redshirt season. Austgulen served the first 32 games of an NCAA mandated 34-game suspension for playing with a professional player back home in Norway. Schivo spent 2011-12 rehabbing her surgically repaired knee. All three will be available in 2012-13, and are ready to make an impact.
"They've been here a year, they know the system and they know what I expect on the floor and off the floor," Newlee said of the three. "They're familiar with the coaches and obviously they've practiced with those players who did play."
Even Idaho's four true freshmen have a little familiarity with the Vandal program. Ali Forde, whose brother Maxx plays football for the Vandals, has been on campus since early August as a member of the Idaho volleyball team. The two-sport athlete will redshirt in volleyball this season and spend the rest of the year with the basketball team. Abi Quinnett is a Moscow native who grew up in the Vandal community. Connie Ballestero and Christina Salvatore spent much of their prep careers playing AAU basketball with Vandal point guard Krissy Karr for the Orange County Rhythm in Southern California.
Junior college transfer Janelle Weiss also joins the Vandal program, and will compete for time at guard.
"Those new kids filtering in should mesh quicker because of the amount of people who are familiar with the program," Newlee said. "Those five newcomers are going to have to get in there right away, I expect them to fully get involved and contribute."
In addition to well-versed newcomers, Idaho still has many of its top performers from last season returning. First-team All-WAC selection and leading scorer Alyssa Charlston is back for her junior season, and senior Jessica Graham could be in the best health of her career entering the season. Sophomores Karr and Stacy Barr proved they among the best freshmen in the WAC last season as Karr earned WAC All-Freshman team honors and Barr was second on the team in scoring with more than 10.0 points per game.
Add into the mix 6-foot-4 junior post Ashley Walters, who played in all 30 games and started five in 2011-12, and senior Ana Overgaard who played in 13 games a season ago and Newlee is excited for the potential his team has this season.
"I love the mix of the new and the old. I'm very excited to see how they all mesh on the floor," Newlee said.
The Vandals will have all of October to practice before hosting an exhibition on Nov. 2 against Western Oregon in Memorial Gym, and Newlee hopes the team can grow together even more before then.
"We've got to get together on the floor offensively. Everybody has got to get a good feel for each other on the floor offensively and defensively. We're going to have to learn, we're going to have to communicate. We always want to make sure our communication is good on both ends and that our work ethic is good on a daily basis."
Idaho opens the regular season at Wyoming on Nov. 9, with the home opener is Nov. 16 against Portland in Memorial Gym.