Utah bites back at injury bug

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Every team in every sport on every level gets hit with the injury, but last season Utah’s women’s basketball was hit hard.

When Utah joined the Pac-12 most of its athletic programs struggled to raise their play to the quality of their new conference. Women’s basketball, however, transitioned into the “Conference of Champions” quite smoothly.

Under the guidance of second-year head coach Anthony Levrets, the Utes finished their inaugural Pac-12 season with a respectable 8-10 finish. The following year the Utes matched their record win-for-win, again finishing 8-10. Utah was rewarded with invitations to the women’s National Invitational Tournament their first two years in the Pac-12, even making the tournament’s championship game in 2012 before losing to Drexel, 46-43.

Coming off of the WNIT runners-up performance, Levrets had high hopes for his team, but the injury bug bit the program like never before.

“Last season was very difficult. We lost a ton of players to injury. It was brutal physically and emotionally for our kids,” Levrets said.

The biggest loss of the year was the injury to Taryn Wicijowski, who was coming off of an impressive season where she played her way to being named an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention. Before the season even began Wicijowski suffered her second torn ACL since arriving in Utah. Wicijowski also tore her ACL in Utah’s last season in the Mountain West.

Despite her injuries, Wicijowski is the team’s leader on and off the court, and she’s well aware of that.

“My biggest hope is to make the girls realize that we can be really, really good,” Wicijowski said. “I want to instill in them that I believe in them. I’ve been through a lot of situations that I can bring to the table.”

Doctors have cleared Wicijowski 100 percent. She won’t have any minute restrictions this year as she tries to regain the form that allowed her to win an MWC freshman of the year award and an all-Pac-12 first team honor in Utah’s first year in the Pac-12.

In the Utes’ first exhibition game of the 2014-15 season on Wednesday night, Wicijowski went down to the court with injury yet again, putting fear and worry into the eyes of Levrets and the rest of the team. Luckily for Utah, the forward was able to come back into the game, but to her dismay, found that her team had lost the lead she helped build up. The Utes ended up dropping the exhibition game against Alaska Anchorage, 67-1, but they are counting their blessings after seeing Wicijowski bounce back from an early scare.

Unlike Wednesday night, it wasn’t just the absence of Wicijowski that affected the Utes last year. Paige Crozon also missed the entire 2013-14 season as she dealt with head and neck injuries. Crozon is just two years removed from leading the Canadian Junior National team in scoring.

“We have nine players that didn’t play last year that are playing this year,” Levrets said. “Four new freshmen, four kids that basically missed the whole year with injury and then a really good transfer.”

Katie Kuklok transferred from Utah Valley University and is expected to battle for a starting guard spot right away.

“She was one of the leading scorers in the Western Athletic Conference last year,” Levrets said. “Scored 35, I think, against us when we played them last year. She’s very skilled offensively.”

Two freshmen who will see early playing time and battle for starting spots are center Joeseta Fatuesi and forward Tanaeya Boclair.

Fatuesi is a talented 6’4” center who can step outside and shoot the three ball. She will get more playing time than expected because the other center on the roster, sophomore Emily Potter, is out for the year with a knee injury.

The loss of Potter is huge for this team as she was on the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team a season ago.

“Obviously it sucks, Emily [Potter] is a great kid. Had a really good freshman year,” Levrets said. “But she had an even better off-season.”

The Utes will also face the tough task of replacing Michelle Plouffe who was a three-time All-Pac-12 member and a one-time Pac-12 All-Defensive team member. Plouffe was selected in the second round in the draft and No. 19 overall by the Seattle Storm.

The Utes are aware they can’t replace Plouffe directly, but Wicijowski has the accolades and experience to make a seamless transition.

“Taryn [Wicijowski] is a stud,” Levrets said. “She’s unphased, has been through so much physically. She’s a great leader, and she’s a huge, huge piece for this team.”

The Utes will also lean heavily on Danielle Rodriguez. The junior point guard has started 66 out of 67 games in her career and knows she’s one of the leaders on this team.

“I just want to be an example for the rest of the team,” Rodriguez said. “I think the most important thing is right from the start of the game, me and Taryn have to play our best, and that’s going to trickle down to the rest of the team.”

Behind Wicijowski and Rodriguez, the Utes are in safe hands but will need help from younger players to finish above their No. 10 Pac-12 preseason ranking.

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@BenJasarevic