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'07-'08 Lady Eagles preview
GSU has depth, talent in backcourt
Carolyn Whitney will be one of the Lady Eagles’ leaders this year. The 2006-07 SoCon Freshman of the Year leads a talented group of guards.
    Rusty Cram takes a quick glance around Hanner Fieldhouse prior to one of his team’s final preseason practices, and two things make him smile — depth and healthy players.
    Those crucial components have been missing lately, but the Georgia Southern women’s basketball team has them both heading into the 2007-08 campaign. The Lady Eagles open their season Friday night at Jacksonville.
    Georgia Southern returns all five starters from last year’s 13-18 (7-11 Southern Conference) team, and the Eagles hope to be at least 10 players deep this season.
    “If we get tired or we sub someone, it’s not going to hurt us at all,” said sophomore point guard Carolyn Whitney, last year’s SoCon freshman of the year. “We just need to keep everyone healthy right now.”
    Along with Whitney, the Eagles are loaded with talented and seasoned guards, including last year’s leading scorer, senior Tiffany Brown (15.1 points game), senior Shawnda Atwood (9.3) and juniors Ashley Melson (6.9) and Ashley Rivens (5.2).
    Those players should be a strength of this year’s team, so Cram installed a new offensive philosophy designed take advantage of the numerous scoring threats at the guard positions. The system aims to give them more opportunities, and Cram’s been pleased with how the team has picked up the new scheme.
    “It’s a constant-motion type deal, and we won’t know night to night who is going to be the leading scorer — it could be anybody,” said Cram, the program’s all-time winningest coach entering his 12th season at the helm. “Everything we run will be out of that pretty much. It’ll be a basic set and all five people are moving at the same time.
    “It really won’t reach its potential until probably midway through the conference (schedule). It’s going to take that long, and next year’s team will benefit more than this year’s.”
    The Eagles are aiming to be more aggressive and pressuring, and Cram feels the team should be able to shoot the ball well this year. Whitney will direct the offense from the point, where she started every game last season. She ranked second in the league in minutes played, averaging 32.23 a game.
    “No coach envies having to play a freshman the amount of minutes she was playing last year at this level, but she handled it, she grew up,” Cram said.
    The next step for Whitney will be overcoming opponents who are likely to key on her this season.
    “They threw everything they had at her last year to test her and cause us to stumble by not letting us get into an offense,” Cram said. “This year they are really going to get after her, break down her weaknesses and come after her even harder. She’s going to grow up even more, and that’s just part of the maturing process. She’s got the mindset and the mentality, but she’ll struggle here and there because she’s still very young.”    
    Whitney knows this year will be a challenge, and she’s a lot more comfortable and confident on the floor because of her playing experience last season.
    “I’m not as nervous at all compared to last year,” Whitney said. “I know what to expect and look forward to, and I know more about what’s going to happen.”    
    Heading into the season opener, Whitney is the leading candidate for the starting job at the point, but it’s too early in the year for anyone to completely lock up a starting role.
    “We are still letting them decide that on the floor,” Cram said.
    As they were last season, the Eagles are still searching for a dominating presence inside, and Cram believes the potential is there. GSU will look toward seniors Chequilla Jessie and Christa Waterman and hope their experience will translate into. Sophomores Jessica Geiger and J’Lisia Ogburn are also in the mix.
    “(Inside) is probably where we are suspect right now,” Cram said. “We don’t have a lot of depth in the post game as far as major producers. One person doesn’t have all the tools, all the artillery to be that great, super, I’m-going-to-kick-your-rear-end type player. We’ve got to use by committee in the post game this year and probably go with four guards a lot until somebody steps up and takes over that ownership.”
    Georgia Southern welcomes three newcomers, a pair of freshmen — Jamie Navarro and Logan Youngblood — and a senior transfer, Ashley Burger. Navarro, a point guard, quickly made a good impression with her hard work and knowledge of the game, Cram said.
    After Friday’s game at Jacksonville, the Eagles travel to Stetson Sunday before heading to Georgia for a 7 p.m. game Tuesday. GSU’s home opener is Tuesday, Nov. 20, against Jacksonville State. During the three-game stretch, the Eagles will keep working on hammering out kinks in the new offense, a process that is likely to take some time.
    “We’re better than we were three weeks ago, but we’re not as good as we are going to be three weeks from now,” Cram said. “It’s just one of those processes you have to go through to get better and better.
    “It’s just a team-chemistry thing for us. Once we all get on the same page and progress as a team at the same rate, then we have a chance to be pretty decent down the stretch.”

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.