Longhorns look to rebound after early tournament exit

Stefan Scrafield

After three consecutive first-round exits at the NCAA tournament, head coach Gail Goestenkors and the Longhorns will rely on veteran leadership and young talent to push them deeper into the postseason.

Despite having struggled in Big 12 conference play and the NCAA tournament during her time at Texas, Goestenkors believes this year’s team is as good as ever and knows the team will need to rely heavily on the older girls in order to make a run in the tournament.

“It starts with the three seniors that we have — Ashley Gayle, Ashleigh Fontenette and Yvonne Anderson,” said Goestenkors at last week’s Big 12 Media Days. “Those three have been with me through their careers and my career at Texas, so they know what I want, what I need, what the expectations are.”

The three seniors, who each played in all 33 games for Texas last year, averaged a combined 30.5 points a game during the 2010-2011 season.

“I think we’ve all been wanting more, and they’ve really made a great commitment and become great leaders,” Goestenkors said.

Although the team expects plenty from its seniors, underclassmen Cokie Reed and Chassidy Fussell will also be expected to help out in a big way.

Reed, a sophomore center, was forced to redshirt last year after undergoing season-ending surgery to remove an extra bone and repair a tendon in her right foot.

“The addition of Cokie Reed back has been tremendous,” Goestenkors said. “She’s special. I know many of you saw her as a freshman making the Big 12 All-Freshman team, but she’s so much better than she was two years ago. There’s no comparison.”

The team traveled to Europe over the summer for a few exhibition games and it gave the team a great opportunity to see how Reed had progressed.

“We had the luxury of playing over in Europe this summer, so it was good for us as a coaching staff to finally get to see her back on the court,” Goestenkors said.

Fussell, who was named to the preseason All-Big 12 Team, led the team in scoring as a freshman and will be expected to do the same this season.

She averaged 16 points and five rebounds per game last year, but after working on all aspects of her game during the offseason, her coach believes she will be even better this year.

“She’s improved her game,” Goestenkors said. “She’s more fit than she was last year. And she was in good shape last year, but she wanted to get quicker. She’s much quicker. She made a commitment to the defensive end of the floor, which is what we needed. She’s also become a better passer. So we’re excited about her progression.”

Aside from the starting five, the team will rely on highly touted freshmen Cassie Peoples and Nneka Enemkpali as well as last year’s leading bench scorer, sophomore Chelsea Bass.

Peoples, who was named Big 12 Preseason Co-freshman of the year, had yet to practice with the team as of last week because she was recovering from an injury. Enemkpali, who was ranked as the 32nd best recruit in the nation by ESPN, brings an athletic component to the team that Goestenkors hasn’t seen since leaving Duke in 2007.

“Nneka Enempkali is the best athlete I’ve had since I’ve been in Texas,” Goestenkors said. “She was also offered a volleyball scholarship to play at Texas. That gives you an idea of her athleticism. She’s a quick jumper, runs the floor well. We feel she’ll give us depth at that power forward position.”

Despite finishing seventh in the conference last year, the team was ranked No. 3 in the Big 12 Preseason Coaches Poll behind only in-state rivals Baylor and Texas A&M.

Printed on Thursday, October 27, 2011 as: Young players hold key to Longhorns' season