Salt Lake City, Ut. -- Does a trip to the NCAA Tournament "Sweet 16" and a Top 25 national ranking sound unrealistic? Not to the Utah women's basketball team, which begins its quest to achieve those goals, among others, when its opens practice for the 1997-98 season on Saturday.
According to their head coach Elaine Elliott, the Utes have every reason believe that they can have one of the top teams in the country this season. After all, Utah returns 10 of 14 letterwinners and two starters from last year's team that went 25-6 overall, advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history and won the Western Athletic Conference Mountain Division by four games with a 15-1 record.
"For the first time in the NCAA history of this program, we have the potential to see beyond what any other Utah team has ever done," says Elliott. "We've been to the second round of the NCAA Tournament now, so reaching the `Sweet 16' isn't just some dream, it's a reality."
The predominant story surrounding this year's team is the senior class' quest for place in history. Four of the five seniors: Amy Alcorn, Laura Ross Allen, Alli Bills and Julie Krommenhoek joined the program as freshmen in 1994-95. As a group, they are capable of walking off into the sunset as the best group ever to wear the Crimson and White. Only three times before has a class been a part of four 20-win seasons. However, none of those can lay claim to an average of 23 wins and a .767 winning percentage. That is what this group is doing by just maintaining the pace it has already established in the players' first three seasons together. The Utes will also be gunning for their fourth Western Athletic Conference championship of some form in as many years and their fourth-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance this season.
"You can see in black and white what that group of kids has already done in three years," states Elliott. "This has been my best experience as a coach, not only because of what they've done, but because of who they are."
Two outstanding senior starters come back to lead the Utes. Krommenhoek (17.4 ppg, 2.6 apg), a 5-9 guard from American Fork, Utah, was an honorable mention Kodak All-American and the WAC's fourth-leading scorer last season. Bills (8.4 ppg, 7.6 apg), a 5-7 guard from Sandy, Utah, led the nation in assists last year and was named to the WAC Mountain Division all-defensive team.
Three key reserves in the front court from last year will contend for starting positions this season. Allen (4.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg), a 6-2 forward/center, started the first five contests at center, played in 26 games and scored in double figures four times last season. Kristi Rose (2.9 ppg, 1.1 bpg), a 6-4 sophomore center, ranked third in the WAC and recorded the sixth-most blocked shots in a single season (34) at Utah. Sophomore 5-11 forward Lori Red (2.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg) played in all 31 games at small forward and was splitting the time with senior starter Lisa Thueson early in the season.
Senior 6-0 forward Angie Thill (2.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg) saw her playing time increase off the bench late in the season and had four boards or more in seven games. She will contend with Allen for the starting job at power forward. Alcorn (1.9 ppg, 0.8 rpg) was set back early last season after missing the first nine games with a stress fracture, but could see significant playing time at the shooting guard or small forward positions this season. Sophomore 5-3 guard Tiana Fuertes (1.4 ppg, 1.9 apg) started three games at point guard last season while Bills was injured and averaged 13.7 minutes a game in 30 contests.
The Utes welcome four newcomers. Julie Richards, a 6-2 transfer from Utah Valley State College, will swing between the center and power forward positions. She averaged 13.7 points and 6.5 rebounds last season. Elliott also signed three freshmen: Kristina Anderson (6-1, F, Eugene, Ore.), Amy Ewert (F/G, 6-0, Vancouver, B.C.) and Lindsay Sodja (6-1, F, Taylorsville, Utah). ReShawna Richardson, a 5-7 sophomore guard from Long Beach, Calif., gains her eligibility this season after sitting out last year as a partial qualifier.
Utah plays the first of its two exhibition games against the Portland Saints on Nov. 1 at 7:00 p.m. at the Huntsman Center. The Utes open the regular season at Weber State on Nov. 21 at 5:30 p.m.