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No looking back for Berenato

Karen Price

Agnus Berenato doesn’t look at last year as a bump in the road, a down year or a signal that the Pitt women’s program needs some work.

She won’t put it in a box and label it as anything.

To the fervent Panthers coach, it simply is what it is — or rather, what it was.

“I really haven’t looked back to last year,” Berenato said last week from her office in Petersen Events Center.

That last season seemed to be such a disappointment shows just how far the program has come since Berenato took over seven years ago. It was, after all, a winning season at 16-15 with an appearance in the WNIT Tournament to boot.

But after four straight 20-plus-win seasons and back-to-back Sweet Sixteen appearances, finishing one win over .500 with a first-round WNIT loss was no reason to get worked up.

No matter what was to blame — injuries, including point guard Jania Sims not being fully recovered from offseason surgeries in both legs; personnel issues, such as lone senior Sophronia Sallard being suspended for disciplinary reasons; bad team chemistry or just plain old bad luck — the season fell short of expectations.

This year, Berenato hopes her five-member senior class, who went deep in the NCAA Tournament as freshmen, will provide plenty to get excited about.

“They’ve been very successful here, three postseasons, so really they’re the most decorated class,” Berenato said. “I think they feel this is their chance.”

The team also will have a new look this year along the sideline.

Berenato has all new assistants after Jeff Williams left to take the head coaching position at La Salle, Caroline McCombs took an assistant’s job at Northwestern and Yolett McPhee-McCuin joined the staff at Clemson, also as an assistant.

The new staff members include veteran coach Patty Coyle, who most recently spent five years as head coach of the WNBA’s New York Liberty; Khadija Head, an assistant at Middle Tennessee State since 2007; and former Pitt standout Mallorie Winn, who was a volunteer coach at Saddleback College, a community college in California.

“It’s not like we have a huge brand-new playbook,” Berenato said. “It’s pretty simple, basic, but it’s really good stuff. Between coach Coyle and coach Head, they bring some really good stuff with them.”

The coaching staff is emphasizing defense this year, especially when it comes to containing opponents and making them take contested jump shots rather than opening up the court and letting them take it right to the rim.

Offensively, they’ll try to work more with mismatches and take what the defense gives them.

“We have an option for everything, for how the defense plays us,” said Berenato, whose team was ranked fifth in the Big East in scoring offense last year (68.4 points per game) but 15th in scoring defense (65.3 points against per game). “I think we have a little more variety in continuity sets, and last year we were a team that had a lot more quick hitters.”

The five seniors — Sims, power forward Shayla Scott, guard Taneisha Harrison, 2009-10 Big East leading rebounder Chelsea Cole and guard Brittaney Thomas — are joined by seven freshmen, including redshirt guard Ashlee Anderson and redshirt center Leeza Burdgess.

Pitt was picked to finish 13th of 16 teams in the Big East preseason coach’s poll, but national television analyst Debbie Antonelli believes that’s too low.

“Look at Chelsea Cole. She’s already a proven big-time rebounder, and Shayla and Taneisha are athletic and long and can do a lot of things,” Antonelli said. “Then you get a healthy Sims, and the lineup they’ll start will have experience, be tested and have had highs and lows. Getting Sims back healthy will make them stronger, and I think they’ll finish above No. 13.”

Berenato is counting on it.

“People still think of (recent standouts) Mallorie, Marcedes (Walker), Shavonte (Zellous), Xenia (Stewart) (when it comes to the team’s success),” Berenato said. “Well, what about Chelsea Cole• What about Jania Sims• What about Shayla Scott, Taneisha Harrison, Brittaney Thomas• That’s what I want them to think about. You, what are you going to leave here• We want another banner.”

Atlantic 10

Duquesne

Coach: Suzie McConnell-Serio (4th season, 55-39 at Duquesne)

2009-10 record: 20-12, 9-5

How they finished: Tied for fourth in the Atlantic 10; lost to Northwestern, 79-72, in the first round of the WNIT

Biggest losses: G Keri Pryor, G Rachel Frederick

Returning starters: F Samantha Pollino, F Alex Gensler, G Vanessa Abel

What to expect: Now with back-to-back 20-win seasons and WNIT appearances, the Dukes hope to make the push to the Women’s NCAA Tournament. Xavier and Dayton still are the teams to beat in the A-10, and the Dukes are picked to finish sixth. They only have 10 players this year, so staying healthy will be key. But with strong returners and the potential for some of their freshmen to make an impact, McConnell-Serio’s team could narrow the gap between it and the conference powerhouses. The Women’s NCAA Tournament still may be a little ways off, but a deep run in the WNIT isn’t out of the question.

Notable: Pollino was selected to the A-10 preseason second team after leading the Dukes with 12 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last year (10th overall in the conference in rebounds and fifth overall with 94 offensive rebounds). … Freshman forward Wumi Agunbiade, although fighting off minor shin injuries, brings a much-needed rebounding presence, and freshman guard/forward Orsi Szecsi, who was being courted by Connecticut last year, adds versatility. They are among seven or eight players who have a chance to start.

Big East

Pitt

Coach: Agnus Berenato (27th season, 30-89 at Pitt)

2009-10 record: 16-15, 5-11

How they finished: The Panthers entered the Big East Tournament as the 12th seed and lost to Louisville in the first round, then lost to Toledo, 70-58, in the first round of the WNIT Tournament.

Biggest loss: C Pepper Wilson, C Kate Popovec

Returning starters: F Shayla Scott, G Jania Sims, guard Taneisha Harrison, F Chelsea Cole

What to expect: The Panthers start the season with low expectations, as they picked to finish 13th in the Big East in the preseason coachs’ poll. It’s a far cry from last year, when they were picked fifth coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. Part of the problem last year was health; another part was chemistry. As long as those two elements are OK, they certainly have the talent to once again make noise in the conference. Cole is the reigning Big East rebounding leader, and Scott, Sims and Harrison have shown the ability to dominate a game. Fellow senior Brittaney Thomas started to hit her stride late last year and provided a scoring presence. One X-factor could be new assistant Patty Coyle, a WNBA coaching veteran with a history of making players better.

Notable: The offseason saw the departure of what would have been the Panthers’ junior class this year. Center Pepper Wilson, a Westinghouse graduate, transferred to Miami for personal reasons. Center Kate Popovec transferred to Northwestern for more playing time, and guard Sarah Ogoke transferred to Texas A&M Corpus Christi to be closer to home. … Would-be redshirt senior Selena Nwude has a medical waiver following her third knee surgery. … The Panthers’ first big test comes Nov. 24 when they host Duke, ranked No. 6 in The Associated Press preseason poll.

West Virginia

Coach: Mike Carey (10th season, 179-107 at West Virginia)

2009-10 record: 29-6, 13-3

How they finished: West Virginia finished second in the Big East; lost to eventual NCAA and Big East champion Connecticut in the Big East Tournament final, 60-32; lost to San Diego State in the second round of the Women’s NCAA Tournament, 64-55

Biggest loss: None

Returning starters: G Sarah Miles, G Liz Repella, F Korinne Campbell, F Madina Ali, C Asya Bussie

What to expect: Coming off a surprising 2009-10 season, the Mountaineers head into the 2010 season with high expectations. WVU is expected to challenge Connecticut for the Big East title. West Virginia returns all of its starters and most of its key bench players from last season. The team even adds athletic center Ayana Dunning, who transferred from LSU and sat out last season. The Mountaineers were a strong defensive team a season ago, but Carey would like to see his team to average 70 points per game. To do that, WVU will try a two-center lineup at times and try finish more consistently on fast-break opportunities.

Notable: West Virginia was picked to finish second in the preseason Big East poll. The Mountaineers received their first-ever first-place vote in the preseason poll. UConn coach Geno Auriemma chose WVU, as he couldn’t vote for his team … WVU has been ranked only once before to start the season (2008). … Miles, a preseason All-Big East selection and last year’s conference Defensive Player of the Year, had surgery in October to repair an injury to her wrist. She is expected back by December. Freshman point guard Brooke Hampton will take her place in the lineup. … WVU has seven nationally televised games this season, which is the second-most in the Big East behind UConn.

Big Ten

Penn State

Coach: Coquese Washington (4th season, 41-50 at Penn State)

2008-09 record: 17-14, 8-10

How they finished: Tied for sixth in the Big Ten; lost to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, 82-75; lost to Hofstra in the WNIT, 76-68

Biggest loss: G Tyra Grant

Returning starters: G Alex Bentley, F Julia Trogele, C Nikki Greene

What to expect: The loss of Grant, the third-leading scorer in school history, creates an obvious void offensively. But sophomores Bentley and Greene showed plenty of promise last season before hitting a wall down the stretch. Redshirt sophomore Mia Nickson, selected a team captain with Trogele, is expected to be a force down low after sitting out last season due to NCAA rules following her transfer from Boston College.

Notable: The Nittany Lions started 15-4 last season before finishing 2-10. … Reserve point guard Emily Phillips transferred to IUPUI in the offseason. … Three freshmen account for Washington’s second consecutive top-25 recruiting class. … This is the first team Washington will coach consisting solely of players she recruited. … Assistant coach Fred Chimel is in his first season with Penn State, replacing Itoro Coleman, who left to become head coach at Clemson.

Northeast

Robert Morris

Coach: Sal Buscaglia (33rd season, 126-88 at Robert Morris)

2009-10 record: 23-9, 17-1

How they finished: The Colonials finished first in the conference then lost to St. Francis (Pa.) in the league tournament semifinals. They lost to St. Bonaventure, 76-50, in the first round of the WNIT.

Biggest loss: G Angela Pace, F Vega Gimeno-Martinez.

Returning starters: G Kristine Silaraja, F Mary Durojaye

What to expect: Pace was not only the NEC Player of the Year but also the Defensive Player of the Year, and Gimeno-Martinez, who returned to Spain after receiving a pro contract, could have been Rookie of the Year last season. Those are considerable holes to fill, and it isn’t clear whether the Colonials have the personnel to fill them. Incoming freshman Artemis Spanou, a 6-foot forward, was the MVP of the FIBA U-20 European Championships, but she’ll have to adjust to the U.S. Division I game. Durojaye has improved inside, Silaraja is the leading returning scorer, and senior Yohanna Morton will replace Pace at point guard. But all three must have surprisingly good seasons if the Colonials are to compete.

Notable: The Colonials play a tough nonconference schedule, including games at North Carolina, Cincinnati and Akron after opening the season at home against Lehigh. Their next nine games after hosting Duquesne on Nov. 28 are on the road, including games at Virginia Tech and Florida’s Christmas Tournament. … Buscaglia, the 2009-10 NEC Coach of the Year, received a three-year contract extension during the offseason, keeping him at RMU through May 2016.

Karen Price and Tony Dobies


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