Womens hoops begins new era Friday
For the past 35 years, there has been one constant in the world of NC State women's basketball.
Players and assistant coaches have come and gone. Arenas and attendance have grown. Opponents have changed - even those in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The names of athletic directors and college chancellors have all changed over three-plus decades.
But during all that time, there was one face that did not change, that became the symbol of Wolfpack women's basketball throughout the ACC and eventually the basketball world: Kay Yow.
From the time she arrived in Raleigh in 1975, after resounding success at the high school and college levels, to the January morning earlier this year when family, friends and colleagues filed by her casket in a Gibsonville cemetery to bid one final goodbye following her death from breast cancer, Yow was not only the living embodiment of the program she helped lead to national prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, but also a symbol of courage, hope and perseverance for those fighting their own battles against disease and other obstacles.
The memory of that example certainly lives on, and the legacy of "the girl from Gibsonville," as she typically referred to herself, is memorialized in the court that will forever bear her name at Reynolds Coliseum. Now, for the first time in three decades, a new author will write the next chapter of Wolfpack basketball history in a season unlike any that have preceded it.
Kellie Harper is well aware of the magnitude of the challenge that confronts her. The former Western Carolina coach arrived in Raleigh last April as the choice of NC State athletic director Lee Fowler to be Yow's successor - despite popular support for Yow's longtime assistant, Stephanie Glance, to be the new coach.
"I can' be Kay Yow - I wish I could be," Harper said following her introduction as the new Wolfpack head coach April 16. "I have to be me - and that, in my opinion, is the best way that I can honor her."
In the ensuing six months, Pack fans have come to discover just what being Kellie Harper means. And judging by the reception from about 5,000 fans at the first Red Rally Oct. 16, a public introduction for the Pack men's and women's teams at Reynolds, they like what they've seen so far: a former player from the winningest women's basketball program in the country (Tennessee) determined to carry on and, more importantly, add to the already lofty legacy of the program Yow started 35 years ago.
"I don't feel any extra pressure to succeed," Harper said, shortly before the beginning of formal practice in October. "That's probably because I've always put pressure on myself. I always have very high expectations. I expect to win, and if you do, too, then there's really no pressure because we're on the same page.
"There are times when I have an internal battle with my expectations and the reality of the situation. But I think, this year, I have a pretty good grasp on both."
Harper's own expectations are born of a career that has been nothing short of spectacularly successful, as both a player and a coach. In her four years at Tennessee, under another legendary coach, Pat Summitt, Harper (then Kellie Jolly) helped the Vols to three consecutive NCAA titles (1996-98) and a 131-17 record (including a perfect 39-0 mark in 1997-98) while earning All-America honorable mention as a senior.
As an assistant coach at Auburn and Tennessee-Chattanooga, Harper was on staffs that guided their teams to four NCAA Tournament appearances in five years. And in her five years at Western Carolina (2004-09), she led the Catamounts to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in her first year and a program-best 25 wins in 2007-08.
When asked what her own goal for her first year as NC State head coach would be, she didn't shock anyone with her reply.
"My first thought would be to make the NCAA Tournament," she said. "That's the goal every team, every coach and player, has when the season starts.
"But at the same time, I think it's more important that the players set the goals for this team, and we will do that before the season starts. We will sit down with them as s staff, put our thoughts together and come up with some realistic goals that they will have ownership of."
Foremost among those goals will certainly be a reversal of last year's disappointing 13-17 mark, only the fifth losing season in program history. Though lauded for their performance in a year that witnessed, for the first time, a major college athletic program suffer the death of its coach in mid-season, the 11 returning veterans of that experience are ready to end the mourning and, as their late coach so eloquently put it, "When life kicks you, let it kick you forward."
"The biggest single thing that came out of last year was that we never gave up," redshirt junior guard Amber White said. "We came together as a team, and that experience has caused us all to work harder than ever to get ready for this year. Everything that happened last year has been a building block for what we will do this year."
However, Harper and her staff (which, with the exception of recent addition Richard Barron, all came with her from Western Carolina) really won't have a grasp on the individual and group capabilities of this 2009-10 squad until well into the first part of the schedule, considering that, until practice began Oct. 16, they'd actually had less than five days total of on-court time together.
"We got together frequently when we first arrived," assistant coach Stephanie McCormick said, "but since school ended in May, most of us have been doing recruiting. Plus, the NCAA limits you to just two hours of on-court time a week during the offseason. We're not going to know a lot until practice starts."
Knowing those strengths and weaknesses will be critical to what Harper promises will be some major changes in the way NC State plays the game.
"We have a Plan A we hope to use," she said. "But we're not so stubborn that we won't change if it becomes necessary. In any case, we need to instill some basic fundamental concepts to fall back on no matter what direction we go."
One of those fundamentals will be a far more fast-paced playing tempo than during Yow's tenure, Harper promised.
"I understand the thinking behind playing more of a half-court style - it helps you because it uses up clock and makes you more productive defensively because you typically limit the amount of points you allow," Harper acknowledged. "But I think it is also important that our energy and tempo is up if we want to score consistently.
"We need to be able to score in transition, to take advantage of mismatches when they happen and to get to the free throw line in order to create more scoring opportunities."
Few Pack followers would argue that shooting and scoring consistency has been a weakness of recent teams, particularly last season, when NC State finished dead last in the ACC in shooting accuracy (35.7 percent) and points per game (60.4). By comparison, in the Pack's most successful season in recent years, its NCAA regional season of 2006-07, the Pack shot 42 percent from the field and averaged 67 points a game. And even though last year's opponents shot a four-year low of 36.9 percent from the floor, the average of 59.3 points allowed was the highest over that same span.
"The two main things I will be emphasizing are scoring and rebounding," Harper said. "We have confidence in our players' abilities to create scoring opportunities, and all of them are going to have the green light to shoot. That being said, in order to get as many scoring opportunities as we can, we have to attack the offensive boards.
"We are going to expect all five players to be going after missed shots, and to do that efficiently, you have to know when shots will happen. That means knowing your teammates, how they play and when they will shoot and in what situations. These are concepts that may be a little different from what they're used to."
Harper also admits that the new philosophy may come at the expense of a past Pack strong suit: a scoring defense that earned the reputation for allowing few opponents to score more than 60 points a game.
"We will still emphasize defense, but we will probably allow more points because we'll be playing more up-tempo," she said. "And our defensive philosophy will involve taking more gambles in the half court and being very aggressive, both in one-on-one and in an overall team concept. All five people have to be working together and know where they have to be and what their responsibilities are if our team defense is going to be successful."
Part of that defensive philosophy includes more reliance on pressing than Pack teams have done in recent seasons, but Harper also acknowledges that with just 12 players on the roster (including senior guard Sharnise Beal, who may not be at full strength until December after undergoing offseason knee surgery), the depth needed to implement her attacking style may be a problem.
"We will press, and we've challenged the players to be in the shape needed to be able to do that," Harper said. "They've done well in the offseason with conditioning drills and the weight room, but they are not where I'd like them to be yet. I think we're going to have a very tough first week of practice that will really test them."
Harper does have one major asset to build on: 11 returning veterans, including four starters. But for the second straight season, the lone graduate is the team's leading scorer and also its on-floor quarterback: three-year starting point guard Shayla Fields, whose 512 points was 29 percent of NC State's total output in 2008-09 and whose average of 17.4 points per game was the highest of any Pack player since 1998.
"We are not going to rely on one person to score a lot or be our main defensive stopper," Harper said. "It's going to be a collaborative effort. I feel we have a lot of weapons, and we'll give everyone an opportunity to do what they do best.
"If I could identify a team strength this early, it would be our versatility. We have to use our players' individual strengths to be successful. But to put that in an overall context, the one strength we have to have is the ability to play hard for 40 minutes. If we do that, it will take care of a lot of other things."
Harper will also expect better consistency and game-to-game development from this squad.
"I'm accustomed to having teams peaking come tournament time," she said. "At Western the four years we went to the NCAA Tournament were the years we were playing our best ball at the end.
"Our non-conference schedule will be incredibly important for us this year. We have to become confidant in what we are doing in those early games in order to develop the consistency we need."
Though NC State will play in only two in-season tournaments this year instead of three (including its own season-opening tournament Nov. 13-14), the 2009-10 schedule is as formidable as ever, featuring 16 teams that went to the NCAA or WNIT last winter. Six of them (Vermont, Austin Peay, Vanderbilt, TCU, Winthrop and Georgetown) are among the Pack's non-conference opponents.
"That's no problem because we need to set the tone early that we want to play every game at the same level," Harper said. "I don't think you flip a switch when you're playing a ranked opponent or when the ACC schedule starts. If there was one motto we want to have for this season, that would be: being consistent and improving game to game."
Not since 1975, when a 31-year-old former high school English teacher and Elon College basketball coach became the first full-time women's basketball coach at NC State, has the Wolfpack program experienced the changes it will undergo this winter. It will be a season of many questions and challenges - and one of great potential.
"We are all excited," senior guard Nikitta Gartrell said. "Everyone feels good about the coaches and each other. It's a great feeling, and we're ready to get out and run."
"It's great to see the passion that the Wolfpack Nation has for this team," Harper said following the Red Rally at Reynolds Coliseum. "And I love that passion. If we can do something special this year, people will love this team that much more, and I want that so bad for these players. I want the focus to be on them, to see all their hard work and dedication rewarded … because they certainly deserve it."