Oct. 31, 2001
By Jack Williams – There are a whole lot of new faces, a new battle plan and even a brand new passion in Georgia Tech’s women’s basketball this season. But one thing never changes–the top goal of everyone in gold and white.
Take it from head coach Agnus Berenato, the goal is a spot in the NCAA Tournament, first, last and always. “Only 64 teams get to go where we want to go,” she said. “Our players are totally committed, working hard to get mentally tougher in an effort to get there.”
The Jackets face their first pre-season competition Friday night, Nov. 2 with a game against the Basketball Travelers at Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Tip-off is set for 5 p.m.
The Yellow Jackets had to settle for berths in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament each of the past two seasons. Last year’s team, hampered by the loss of key players to the injury list, finished 14-15 while scoring a number of major victories along the way.
The newest of the new in Tech basketball this season is the assistant coaching staff which has a new face at every post. Candy Cage of the old staff accepted a head coaching position at Loyola College in Maryland and took another Tech coach, Mark Miller, with her. Then a third Jacket assistant, Monique Holland, went into administrative work as an assistant in Tech’s athletic compliance office.
“After they all moved up professionally,” Berenato says, “that gave me an awesome opportunity to recruit my own staff. I brought in three people who are proven winners. We are learning from each other. Although the team obviously still will have my mark on it, most everything we do is different than it was before. We have a completely new offense. In our preseason practice, not one drill has been the same as it was in the past.”
The new coaches are MaChelle Joseph, whose recruiting and teaching helped make Auburn a power in recent years, Jeffrey Williams, a big winner as an assistant at Howard University and as head coach of the Atlanta Justice in the Women’s Basketball League, and Kisha Ford, who helped put Georgia Tech basketball on the map when she was, as Berenato puts it, “the heart of the soul of the Tech team,” in the mid 1990s. She has since performed in the WNBA.
“These three new coaches are very passionate, very emotional about basketball, Georgia Tech and winning,” Berenato says. “They are so much fun to be around. I’ve never laughed so much in my life.”
Another big reason Berenato is so happy these days could be the return to action of 5-11 forward Regina Tate, a red-shirt senior from Columbus, Ga., who sat out the 2000-2001 season with a knee injury.
“When it was decided in early January last season that Regina would miss the entire season, I told Dave Braine (Tech director of athletics) that we might not win another game,” she said. “That is how much I knew she meant to our team. Of course, we did go on to score some good wins, but it was not the same without her.”
“Regina is really good defensively. She can be the top defensive player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. She will be our go-to defensive stopper. I had our new coaches do a scouting report on our team by looking at film from last year just to familiarize them with our personnel. They, of course, did not get to see Regina in action. When they finally did when practice started, they were like ‘Wow, what a good player.’
“Regina came to Tech primarily to get a degree in mechanical engineering and that will happen. But her goals have changed. She is thinking now about a future in professional basketball. She is that good.”
Berenato also talks a lot these days about the development of another player, 6-4 Sonja Mallory, a junior from The Bronx, N.Y.
“Sonja is the most improved player on the team,” the coach said. “She is paying the price to be good. We need her to be a dominant force and she can be. With Regina and Sonja in the middle, we now have the inside presence that has been missing. That’s where we need to go, inside to them.”
Another of Berenato’s favorite topics of conversation is senior guard Milli Martinez of Imlay City, Mich.
“Milli is a breath of fresh air every day,” the coach said. “She is so unassuming, so determined, a player who gives 250 percent every day. She can score, but she also can be one of our leaders in rebounding and on defense. We platooned her in the past, but that will probably not happen this year. We need Milli’s guts and courage in the lineup.”
Berenato is proud that point guard Nina Barlin, a junior from Katrineholm, Sweden, distinguished herself as a member of the Swedish National team during Tech’s off-season.
“She became a starter on the team that played in the World Games,” Berenato said. “She proved to be a real force with 18 points against the Russian team. I think Nina realized when she went back to Sweden just how much progress she has made in her time at Georgia Tech. The people in Sweden could not believe how much better she is now than when she played for the Swedish Junior team. It all served to build up her confidence for this season.”
Berenato believes Tech’s newest players eventually will prove to be outstanding. “One of the best may be guard Megan Isom, a red-shirt sophomore from Decatur, Ga., who is a good outside shooter and thus may get a lot of playing time this season.
Others are freshmen Nefertiti Walker, a guard from Riverdale, Calif., who made All-America in AAU ranks, and Maya Monroe, a forward from Berkeley Heights, N.J., who is the daughter of former NBA great Earl (The Pearl) Monroe of the New York Knicks.
It’s not just the players or the assistant coaches who have generated a new passion in Georgia Tech basketball. So have some of the support staff members and they draw special praise from Berenato.
She talks often about Karen Copeland, who is director of women’s basketball operations. She talks, too, about Scott Sinclair, the conditioning specialist whom she says “is taking our girls to heights in the weight room that they have never been before and giving them new direction,” and assistant sports information director Jeremy Noel “who is so vitally interested in our program that he has helped bring a new kind of spirit to the team.”
Although she admits she has not read any basketball magazine or studied any predictions, Berenato says Duke will be the team to beat in the ACC race. She says NC State, too, appears to be a Top-10 team and North Carolina had an exceptional recruiting year.
Berenato is excited that Tech has been chosen by the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to be part of a televised doubleheader at Philips Arena in Atlanta on Dec. 27. The two games there will match Tech against arch-rival Georgia and Duke against perennial power Tennessee.
“It’s awesome that the Peach Bowl has made this commitment to women’s basketball,” Berenato says. “And we are happy to be in the competition along with three Top 10 teams. It is great to get that kind of exposure.”
Berenato is delighted that women’s basketball, in general, is getting such vast exposure. “It all started here in Atlanta when we sold out for the Women’s NCAA Final Four in 1993,” she said. “It was the first time that had happened. It has sold out every year since then. Then in the Olympic Games here in 1996, the USA women became the real Dream Team. The women created more excitement than the men. There were around 45,000 in the Georgia Dome for the championship game when the USA Women beat Brazil for the Gold Medal.
“Women’s basketball has grown so fast for other reasons, too,” she says. “The women players still are interested in being role models, in family values and in giving back to the communities. That’s also what makes the sport so special.”
Berenato hopes her “new-look” Georgia Tech team is special for all those reasons and more. She believes that it a possibility.
“It’s a new day in Georgia Tech women’s basketball,” she tells everyone in sight.