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Returners make life easier for coach, UTA

Returners make life easier for coach, UTA

Freshman center Rebekah Van Dijk guards the opponent on March 11 at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. With eight players returning from last season, women's basketball practice has been smoother.

Before Krista Gerlich gathers her team at center court for practice Monday, sophomore center Rebekah VanDijk is dribbling a basketball in one hand and a tennis ball in another.

To her left is Lauren Billie, one of two freshmen on the roster. And to her right is a row of players that nearly takes up the length of the sideline at the practice gym inside the College Park Center.

Some players are new, some are old.

Sophomore guard Cierra Johnson falls into the older category despite having just one year of experience in Gerlich’s system. But that one year of experience is enough to separate her and the returners from the rest of the newcomers. And it’s enough to make life just a tad bit easier for Gerlich as she prepares for her third season as head coach of the UTA’s women’s basketball program.

“No doubt,” Gerlich interjects after she’s asked how much easier life has become with veteran players. “And it gives you a confidence that we’re already farther ahead. I felt like in the past, we really had to teach, teach, teach, teach, because everything was so new, and all of our kids were so new. Now we call something that we’ve done, and instead of having to really teach it, they get out there, and they do it, and we can just tweak it.”

UTA has eight returners on its roster from a season in which the Mavericks went 17-13 and were the No. 5 seed in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

Winning had been a thing of the past for the women’s basketball program, as UTA hadn’t had a winning season since 2010. But given a fresh batch of recruits, Gerlich made quick work to erase the past and set the early stages for a foundation that began showing promise as early as the sixth game of last season, when UTA nearly upset an undefeated Kansas State University.

“It’s been fun to watch them not only already know what we’re doing and excel at it, but also teach our new kids that are coming in and just hold them to the higher standards and the expectations that we’ve been trying to instill,” Gerlich said. “It’s been fun to see our program and our traditions start developing.”

Those traditions started with players like Johnson and VanDijk, who combined for 20 points in a four-point loss at Kansas State University in the sixth game of the season last year.

Now sophomores, both bring a year of experience in Gerlich’s system, which is continuing to pay dividends into the fifth week of practice.

“It makes a huge difference because it really makes the new ones buy in to what we’re doing,” Johnson said. “Just by seeing what we’re doing is really working.”

Just ask junior guard Kamy Cole, one of the five newcomers this season.

“It’s good. It’s different than any other place that I’ve been,” Cole said. “Defensively, there’s a whole new system that we’re having to learn, all the newbies. But I think we’re getting the hang of it, and we’re setting to blend a little bit better with the returners.”

Gerlich said the team is still a ways away from incorporating all the players together, but there’s about seven or eight that have developed a chemistry that should bode well on the court.

And if the newcomers can integrate with the returners as well as Gerlich hopes, the women’s basketball team could be looking at expanding on the tradition that began last season.


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