With one of her youngest teams ever, Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach Agnus Berenato knew last year’s Yellow Jackets squad would offer a glimpse into the future.
Berenato watched as her Yellow Jackets upset a pair of ranked foes in 17th-ranked NC State on the road and seventh-ranked North Carolina at home. She watched as the Yellow Jackets played Final Four qualifiers Georgia and Duke to two of their closest games of the season, falling by a combined total of seven points.
Berenato watched as Niesha Butler evolved into not only the top freshman in the ACC, but one of the top rookies nationally. She watched as Danielle Donehew enjoyed one of the finest three-point shooting seasons in Tech history and as Regina Tate started to show star potential.
“I think everybody really overachieved last season,” says Berenato, entering her 12th year at the Tech helm. “Danielle Donehew, Regina Tate and Niesha Butler helped us get some tremendous wins and keep us close in some games we probably should not have been close in. I’m really disappointed, however, that we didn’t get to the postseason. The entire team was disappointed that we didn’t get to the postseason. So even though there were a lot of positives, we’re not satisfied.”
Now with a team that is a year older, a year wiser and a year more experienced, the future is now and postseason is the goal for the Yellow Jackets in the year 2000.
“Our goal is to go to the NCAA Tournament this year,” Berenato says. “We are going to be totally focused on attaining that goal. We know that in order to go to the NCAAs we have to win games. That’s the bottom line. The ACC has forever been a tough and challenging league, so it’s not going to be easy.”
The optimistic and upbeat Yellow Jackets return eight letterwinners and three starters in Donehew, Tate and Butler from last year’s 13-14 team that finished sixth in the regular-season ACC race after being projected eighth in the preseason. Joining Tech’s returnees are five newcomers that will also help form the core of players Berenato has to work with as the Jackets seek their first NCAA berth since 1993.
Although Tech returns players who accounted for 74 percent of the team’s scoring, 79 percent of the team’s rebounding and played 75 percent of the minutes last season, Berenato must replace senior starters Kenya Williams and Kelly Muir, as well as junior reserve Candi Fails from last year’s squad.
Williams led the Jackets in minutes played, rebounding and field-goal percentage a year ago and was second on the team in scoring. She ended her career ranked second on the Yellow Jackets’ career field-goal percentage list and became just the 11th player in program history to score 1,000 or more points and have 500 or more rebounds in a career.
Muir, a former walk-on, started the last 13 games of the season for the Yellow Jackets and had her best all-around game at 13th-ranked Duke. Fails, a transfer from Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College, spent one season in the Tech program and emerged as a defensive specialist off the bench.
“Kenya and Kelly were both great seniors,” Berenato says. “Every year you lose players that you have to replace, and I do believe we have players who are ready to step up and fill their spots. You obviously don’t replace someone like Kenya Williams, but what you hope for is someone to come in and make their own mark.”
Leading the Jackets into the 1999-2000 campaign is senior Danielle Donehew, a 5-8 shooting guard from Canton, Ga. Tech’s lone senior, Donehew is clearly the veteran leader of this year’s squad having played in all but one of the Jackets’ 82 games since her freshman year.
“Danielle will play a vital role for us, and she is a pivotal part of our gameplan,” Berenato says. “She is definitely looking to go to the postseason and has done everything on and off the court to be a leader. Danielle knows she is going to have to pick up in the responsibility of taking the team in the direction we are going.”
Donehew started the final 12 games of 1999 and ranked among the conference and national leaders in three-point shooting. She led the ACC and tied for second nationally in threes made per game with a 3.2 average. She also led the ACC and ranked 37th nationally in three-point percentage, connecting on 41 percent of her attempts.
Donehew set a new single-season school record for threes made with 86, which also tied for the second-highest season total in ACC history. Donehew enters her senior season needing just 38 threes to become the Jackets’ all-time leader.
“Danielle is a tremendous shooter, but she has worked hard on other aspects of her game,” Berenato says. “Everyone talks about her shooting, but she has improved on her ball-handing and defense and become more of a complete player.”
Joining Donehew in the starting backcourt will be sophomore Niesha Butler, who was the ACC’s Rookie of the Year and a freshman all-America last season. Butler became the first Tech freshman to start every game and lead the team in scoring since Kisha Ford during the 1993-94 season.
Among Butler’s highlights during the 1998-99 season was a 40-point performance in the Jackets’ 92-70 win over Florida State on Jan. 2, which was the third-highest single-game total in Tech history. She scored in double figures in 25 of 27 games and ranked second among all freshmen nationally with a 19.3 points per game average. Her average of 19.3 ranked second overall in the ACC, but she led the league in scoring in conference games with a 21.3 average. Besides being a scoring threat, Butler led Tech and finished third in the ACC with 4.4 assists per game.
“Players like Niesha Butler are rare,” Berenato says. “You never know how freshmen are going to react, but Niesha was willing to put the team on her back and carry them. I was really impressed with her maturity on the court, and we are expecting her to pick up right where she left off last year.”
Rounding out Tech’s triumvirate of returning starters is junior Regina Tate, a 5-11 forward from Columbus, Ga. Generally considered the Jackets’ best all-around athlete, Tate is a tenacious rebounder and is also Tech’s top defender. She started all 27 games at small forward last season, leading Tech and finishing second in the ACC in rebounding. She also ranked among the conference leaders in steals for much of the year.
Tate raised her scoring and rebounding averages from 5.0 points per game and 4.6 rebounds per game as a freshman to 9.9 points per game and 9.7 boards per game as a sophomore. She posted six double-doubles last year and had a career game against fifth-ranked Georgia with 18 points and 18 rebounds. While once considered just an athlete, Tate has come into her own as a basketball player.
“Regina Tate got to a new level last season,” Berenato says. “She has always been a great athlete, but now she has become more confident in herself as a basketball player. Now she realizes that she can be an impact player in basketball. What Regina needs to do is take more responsibility as a scoring threat.”
Replacing Williams’ scoring and rebounding presence and finding additional help in the paint are Berenato’s primary concerns as the Yellow Jackets head into the upcoming campaign. In assessing those needs, however, Berenato will have more players and more size at her disposal this season than last. Looking to step back into a starting role at center is junior Candice McCallum. The 6-1 native of Barnegat, N.J., was Tech’s starting center in 12 of the Yellow Jackets’ first 13 games before being declared academically ineligible on Jan. 7.
The Jackets missed McCallum’s presence while she sat out the last half of the year. Although not a prolific scorer, McCallum’s size and strength creates problems for opposing defenses. In Tech’s 74-73 road win against 17th-ranked NC State on Dec. 5, McCallum scored eight points but perhaps more importantly was instrumental in neutralizing the Wolfpack’s 6-6 center Summer Erb, .
“Losing Candice really hurt us last year,” Berenato says. “She learned a lot by sitting out the last half of the season and worked that much harder to get back. Candice has improved tremendously and is really anxious to get back on the court. Right now she would once again be up for a spot in the paint for us. What she needs to do though is be ready to step in and play for the long haul.”
Fellow junior Jaime Kruppa saw action in all 27 contests a year ago, starting once against Georgia State when McCallum sat out with a foot injury. In her lone start, Kruppa responded with 12 points and 18 rebounds, both career highs. However, she primarily served as the Jackets’ “sixth man” last season, being called on to provide a spark off the bench. Kruppa also emerged as one of Tech’s top defenders and rebounders, finishing first on the team in steals and third in rebounds.
“Jaime can be outstanding on the boards when she wants to be,” Berenato says. “Jaime needs to develop better consistency, and we’re looking for her to mature and step it up a notch this season. We liked Jaime in a reserve role last year because she usually provided a lift for us off the bench. This year we need her not to just be known for rebounding. We need her to get more points on stick backs. That’s how we can recover some of the points we lose with Kenya.”
Sophomore Lindsey Aves showed steady improvement as a freshman. She showed flashes of brilliance in games against nationally-ranked Virginia and Duke. Her progress was hampered late when she suffered a broken tailbone in practice, but Aves has put in extra work in the weight room this offseason to gain more size and strength.
“Lindsey can help out at either forward position and can even play some guard,” Berenato says. “At 5-11, she has good size and can stretch defenses with an effective three-point shot. She’s added some weight and has gotten a lot stronger over the summer. Lindsey needs to continue to work hard and keep pushing everyone else in practice.”
The Yellow Jackets will be without the services of Aisha Howard once again this season. Howard saw action in 25 games as a freshman in 1997-98, but sat out as a redshirt last season to add some weight and strength to her 6-4 frame. She suffered an improbable knee injury in practice midway through the season last year, putting on hold what Berenato hoped would be a promising return. “Aisha is definitely out again this year,” Berenato says. “Our concern right now is for Aisha’s future and that she will have no longlasting complications from this injury.” Berenato also welcomes to this year’s squad a pair of freshman who stand better than 6-feet in Tamika Boatner and Sonja Mallory. Both will have the opportunity to compete along with Tech’s returnees for minutes in the paint to help bolster the Jackets’ inside game. Of the two, Boatner is the more polished. A finalist for the 1999 Naismith National Prep Player-of-the-Year Award, the 6-2 Memphis, Tenn., native was also ranked among the nation’s top seniors last year by Athlon, Blue Star and Street & Smith’s. She also has the versatility to help out at either forward or center. “Tamika is quick, agile and a strong inside player,” Berenato says. “She can post up, play with her back to the basket or play facing the basket. Tamika is going to have to help us right away, but how much depends on how hard she is willing to work to improve.” Mallory helped her high school, Brooklyn (N.Y.) Technical, to the state playoffs her senior season. Although she is still maturing as a player, her physical skills will keep her in contention for minutes as a freshman. At 6-4, she is the tallest member of this year’s team, and she may have the most athletic build on the squad. “Sonja has a great basketball body and is still learning the game,” Berenato says. “There will probably be a greater transition period from high school to college for Sonja, but I think she can be a great college player. Her work ethic has already been phenomenal.” Tech’s strength this coming season rests in its deep backcourt where starters Donehew and Butler, and sophomore reserves Ashley Ebert and Milli Martinez return, joining three incoming freshmen. Ebert started Tech’s first 15 games at point guard last season, and, along with Butler, formed the first all-freshman starting backcourt. Midway through the season, Ebert moved into a reserve role, but still managed to finish second on the team in assists. She returns looking to put her freshman growing pains behind her and once again contend for significant minutes. “Ashley struggled at times last season with her confidence,” Berenato says. “She had a hard transition from high school to college, and we may have put too much pressure on her having told her that she would come in and be our starter as a freshman. I still believe that Ashley is a good player. What she needs to do is mature a little more and continue to work on making the good pass instead of the spectacular pass.” Martinez appeared in all 27 games as a freshman and came on strong toward the end of her rookie campaign. She came off the bench to score seven points each against Virginia and Maryland in Tech’s final two regular season games. Martinez continued her upward trend in Tech’s ACC Tournament game against 13th-ranked North Carolina with 10 points in 23 minutes.
“Milli really came on in our last few games and turned it on,” Berenato says. “This year, Milli doesn’t need to wait for the end of the season, she needs to go ahead and turn it on. Milli is a very good athlete, but once she gets into the game she needs to transfer her skills to the court. Milli needs to have more confidence in herself, but she can have a more expanded role this season.”
Three freshmen will add depth and contend for minutes in the Yellow Jackets’ backcourt.
Nina Barlin, a 5-9 point guard, is the Yellow Jackets’ first foreign women’s basketball player to enroll at Tech as a freshman. She brings with her a wealth of international experience, having played on the Swedish Junior National Team, averaging 15 points and five rebounds per contest.
“Nina Barlin is going to be a tremendous asset,” Berenato says. “Not many people know about her, but I believe she is going to come in and have a tremendous impact because she has a great sense of maturity about her.”
Amy Lingenfelder, a 5-9 shooter from Fairfax, Va., was an honorable mention all-America choice by USA Today, a second-team all-Metro selection by The Washington Post and her district’s player of the year as a senior. Lingenfelder’s strength is her three-point shot, which gives the Jackets an outside shooter who can relieve Donehew.
“Amy has good size and quickness but is known for her three-point shot,” Berenato says. “We need another shooter to help take a little of the pressure off Danielle and give Niesha Butler another outlet when she slashes.”
Alex Stewart is a local product having grown up less than 20 miles from Tech’s campus in nearby Norcoss, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. Even though at 5-5 she will be the smallest players on the team, she will also likely be the most active. Also an honorable mention USA Today all-America and a second-team all-state choice, Stewart had a busy summer, helping the Georgia Magic AAU team to the 18-under national championships and leading all scorers in the annual Georgia-Tennessee high school all-star game.
“Alex will be a big help with her speed and quickness,” Berenato says. “She will put pressure on all of our other guards every day defensively. She’s going to be like a gnat, all over the place and in people’s faces. She will help us offensively as well because she is difficult to trap and has the ability to penetrate and break down defenses.”
With the goal of making the NCAA field of 64 this season, the Yellow Jackets will test their mettle against seven teams that qualified for the Big Dance a year ago. In addition to ACC rivals Duke (Final Four), Clemson, North Carolina, NC State and Virginia, Tech will also square off against NCAA participants Georgia (Final Four) and Mississippi State in its non-conference slate.
“I believe our schedule is much stronger this coming year than it was this past year,” Berenato says. “Nobody in the ACC is going to be down and our non-conference schedule has been upgraded. We are playing the always-tough Georgia for the second straight year and Mississippi State was an NCAA team last year.”
Tech will appear on television at least four times during the 1999-2000 season as part of the ACC’s regional sports network package. Tech’s games at Florida State on Jan. 16, at Maryland on Jan. 23, at Clemson on Jan. 31 and home against Wake Forest on Feb. 6 will all be televised.
The Jackets will once again host their annual Thanksgiving and Christmas tournaments. This year’s Georgia Tech/Atlanta Marriott Northwest Basketball Classic Nov. 26-27 features Tech, Elon, Yale and Hofstra. The Georgia Tech/Atlanta Marriott Northwest Holiday Invitational Dec. 29-30 features Tech, Western Michigan, Campbell and Pittsburgh.