Women face challenging season schedule

By Elizabeth Frome, Staff Writer

After finishing the 2008-2009 season by winning the Mountain West Conference regular season and tournament championships, the Utah women’s basketball team has high hopes for the coming year.

“I know this team will be very good by the end of the season,” said head coach Elaine Elliott. “We’ll drop a few games in the beginning; we just have to make sure we understand what the schedule presents us with and handle it emotionally.”

With schools such as Stanford, Louisville, Minnesota and Oregon in Utah’s upcoming schedule, the Utes will have a chance to gain some national attention with a few wins.

Elliott said she is confident that the team will bounce back from tough losses and really compete with every team to put it in a good position for postseason play.

“We have the character to overcome losses,” Elliott said. “We just have to focus on our own abilities and results.”

The Utes lost a lot of talent at the end of last season and said goodbye to three senior leaders, including guard Morgan Warburton. Elliott said she is hopeful that the seniors on this year’s team will be able to fill those leadership roles and guide the Utes throughout what she plans to be another successful year.

Among those returning from last year’s team is senior forward Kalee Whipple. Throughout the offseason, Whipple has been on the court and in the weight room fine-tuning her game and getting physically prepared to enter her final season with the Utes.

Whipple said she’s looking forward to playing the schools that will challenge the team and hopes to turn heads on a national level.

“There are a lot of big-name schools that our team gets excited for,” Whipple said. “We’ll give them a run for their money and show them that we have a good program as well.”

Elliott said she has high hopes for Whipple, and believes that she could have an opportunity to play at a higher level if she continues to work as hard this season as she has in the past. Elliott said she’s confident that Whipple will excel as a leader for the Utes.

“The experience and talent Kalee has is huge,” Elliott said. “She has to show the new athletes what it takes to get to where she is.”

With a handful of freshmen recruits and a walk-on freshman joining the Utah team, Elliott and her staff will be managing a young group.

Elliott said she’s concerned about some of the season’s matchups because the team is absorbing so many first-time collegiate players. Utah had a fairly young team and a difficult season-opening schedule last year, struggling to start out with a 1-4 record.

Elliott said the team eventually benefited from its rocky start and challenged athletes as individuals to find the areas in which they needed the most improvement. Elliott hopes the Utes will pull away with a few more initial wins this season and that the team will find specifics to improve upon.

“The schedule (this season) is not in the best interest of a young team,” she said. “But it’s a good opportunity to measure ourselves.”

Firm positions on the floor have yet to be decided, and with several talented freshmen on their way into the program, Elliott said she’s expecting some good competitions for starting spots.

Describing one new recruit as a shooter sorely needed, and another as ready to play a big role for the Utes, Elliott is unsure as to who might be starting in almost every position.

“Some returning athletes are going to have battles on their hands” for starting positions, she said.

Injuries have also caused issues in the lineup, and for the time being, the coaching staff is counting only one point guard as completely healthy and ready to play. Elliott said she hopes certain players will exhibit flexibility and play a couple of different spots if necessary.

With so much on the horizon for the Utes’ 2009-2010 season, the team and the coaching staff are planning on taking it one game, and one practice, at a time.

“We want to win a championship and be first in our conference, but there’s some building up to that we have to focus on,” Whipple said.

Elliott, who has racked up more than 500 career wins, 16 NCAA Tournament appearances and a handful of conference titles and league tournament championships, is optimistic about the upcoming season.

Coaching the Utes since 1983, she holds the No. 1 spot in the Mountain West Conference for tenure. Elliott said she’s confident and comfortable with her coaching system and doesn’t expect any big changes for the upcoming season.

[email protected]