Halfway there: '04s look to reverse downward trend

by Elliot Olshansky | 7/2/02 5:00am

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of articles profiling members of the class of 2004 on Dartmouth varsity sports teams.

When the women's basketball class of 2004 came to Dartmouth in the fall of 2000, they joined a Big Green squad that had won the last two Ivy League championships. Since then, women's basketball at Dartmouth has not seen similar success.

Pennsylvania ran the Ivy table in 2001 to finish with a 14-0 league record, as Dartmouth rebounded from early struggles to finish with an 8-6 Ivy mark (12-15 overall). This past season, a Big Green team without seniors showed tremendous growth over the course of the season to finish 7-7 in the Ancient Eight (11-6 overall), good for fourth in the league.

Given the struggles of the team over the last two years, one might think that Dartmouth basketball has not met the '04s' expectations. One could not possibly be more wrong.

"I would say that [playing at Dartmouth] has exceeded all expectations," said shooting guard Jamie Librizzi. "I was really excited coming to play for a Division I program, especially in the Ivy League, which is a pretty special thing, and it's definitely just been even more than what I expected."

"I've made great friends on the team and have had an unbelievable experience already in just two years, so I'm pretty excited for the next two years to come."

Point guard Courtney Lewis '04, who led the Ivy League in steals last season, agrees that Dartmouth basketball has exceeded her expectations. "I knew it would be a lot of hard work," said Lewis. "The work's even harder than I thought it would be, but it all balances out with the bonds that you form with the team. It's all worth it. It's a lot of work, but it's all worth it in the end."

For center Samantha Burnham '04, who grew up in Hartford, Vermont, and was a frequent spectator in Leede Arena before coming to Dartmouth, playing for the Big Green has given her an entirely new perspective on what Dartmouth basketball is all about.

"Watching Dartmouth basketball my entire life, I wasn't aware of how much gets put into the season," said Burnham. "When you just go to the game as a spectator, you just see the athletes, you just see the game, you just see the score.

"But, you don't see the all-nighters people have to [pull] to catch up on homework, and you don't see the endless hours of road trips and watching movies with your friends and pregame meals, and you don't see practices every day, and lifting, and all the fun times that are involved in the season. So I think in that way, it definitely exceeded what I expected, and I'm glad for it."

Burnham is one of three players from the twin states on the Big Green, along with Librizzi (from Essex Junction, Vt.) and forward Katie Skelly '03, who grew up in Lyme, N.H., and attended Hanover High School. The '04s agree that the presence of local players on the Big Green squad affects their Dartmouth basketball experience.

Lewis is quick to describe how the "community atmosphere" of Dartmouth basketball influenced the team's return home after a seemingly interminable road trip at the beginning of the season. After opening the season on Nov. 5 with a home exhibition game against Turkish team Galatasaray SK, the Big Green did not play at home while classes were in session until Jan. 15.

"I think the fans were just excited as we were to finally be home," said Lewis. "Just talking to the kids and their parents, they came up after the games they were just so thankful that we were at home and that they could support us and not just look at the scores in the papers it's a real community atmosphere."

Burnham adds, "I definitely think it brings more crowds to the games by having more local people on our roster, just because of social connections. Everyone knows everyone around here; it's not exactly a city around here.

"But I think that the people that aren't from around here also bring a lot of crowd support, just because everyone wants to know who the out-of-towner is. Everyone's heard of this kid from Arizona [Lewis]. 'How good is she?' So I do think that the locals bring in a lot of people to the games, but I don't think it's just them. I think it's our reputation as a team."

Lewis also points out that, "Because all the little girls who come to our games know that half our team is from the Upper Valley -- well, not really half -- but they have hopes that they can become Division I basketball players. I think that's a huge benefit of having a lot of Upper Valley kids, just to be role models. I think it helps a lot."

The children who frequently populate the Leede Arena bleachers certainly saw the Big Green women do some growing up of their own during the 2001-02 campaign. After opening the Ivy season 2-5, Coach Chris Wielgus' squad turned it around in the second half of the season, winning five of their last seven Ivy League contests.

Perhaps the team's growth throughout the season was best seen in the team's four games against Brown and Yale. In Dartmouth's first meeting with Brown, at Pizzitola Sports Center, the Bears nearly stole a win with an 8-0 run late in the second half, but Heather Hanson '03 sealed the Dartmouth victory on a layup with nine seconds remaining.

The previous night, in New Haven, the Big Green came within three points midway through the second half, but an 11-4 Yale run over the next three minutes put the game out of Dartmouth's reach, and the Big Green went on to lose by six.

It was quite a different story a month later, when the Bears and Bulldogs visited Leede Arena. Against Brown, Dartmouth opened the second half on a 17-4 run and went on to dispatch the Bears, 70-52. The next night, the Big Green trailed the Bulldogs by 22 with 16:11 left to play in the second half, but the team showed confidence and maturity in coming back to win, 69-67.

When asked about the difference between the two Brown/Yale weekends, Lewis said, "I think the difference was just more time under our belts and just more confidence. I mean, the Yale game was awful, and we played awfully and only lost by six, and we knew if we played well [we could beat them]. We just had to put two games back to back together. And our Brown game at Brown was awful, and yet we came out and won. I mean, we just knew we could win. I think that's what really made the difference."

Librizzi adds, "I think by the end of that season, because we hadn't been winning a lot, but we knew how good we were, we really felt like we needed to prove ourselves at the end of the season, so coming into this upcoming season we would have made a statement. And to know that just because we haven't had the most successful past couple of seasons, we're still there. We're still at the top of the Ivies, and every year, we're going to try to make a run for it. I think by the end of that season, we were just really ready to turn things around."

The Big Green will have an excellent opportunity to turn things around this coming season, as Dartmouth did not lose a single player to graduation this year. When asked about what it will be like to have the entire team back, Librizzi said, "I think it's going to be nice that we'll all have a year under our belts with each other, and we all have a year of experience with each other, which can't hurt, and we also have four freshmen coming in who are going to help tremendously. So I think that, just the fact that we all have a year together, that we can carry over to this year [is going to help]. I know we all learned a lot from last season, and it will just make the whole transition to this season a whole lot easier."

Burnham adds, "I'm totally psyched that we didn't lose anyone last year. I think not only will the experience benefit our game, but we've become closer as friends, and by sharing two years together, we'll become even better friends, which I think is just as important as the actual game we play."

One person who will not be returning to Leede Arena this fall is assistant coach Dan Boyle, who is returning to teaching after two seasons with the Big Green. Boyle will be replaced by Chris Leazier, who volunteered as an assistant coach with the Big Green men's basketball team for the past two seasons.

Leazier has already impressed the '04s with his work ethic and energy. Librizzi said, "He has a lot of energy and a lot of things to bring to the team, so we're really excited." Lewis added, "He's already put in a lot of effort. He's getting ready to go recruit now. He's doing a good job so far."

Leazier will not be the only new face on the sidelines, as the Big Green women will welcome four players from the class of 2006: forward Krista Perry and guards Jean Cullen, Shannon O'Donnell, and Angela Soriaga.

When asked what advice they will try to pass along to the incoming players, Lewis was quick to respond, " To not waste that freshman year. You only have four years. Don't waste one year of coming in being all timid and not knowing what your place is on the team. Make it defined from the beginning.

"Just put all the effort into it because it will pay off, and hopefully you won't have to sit that freshman year, get quality time in. A lot of these girls have potential to play a lot of minutes."

Librizzi adds, "I think definitely just coming in, now that two years have gone by and realizing that you only have two years left, you just have to make the most of it from the beginning. It goes by so quickly, and that this is a great experience, and they just need to really take it and enjoy."

Burnham added, "I would say my advice would be to not get frustrated and to have fun from the beginning. Always remember why you're doing this, because it can be a lot of fun if you want it to be."

And the three '04s hope to have plenty of fun on the way to increased success in their final two seasons.