Practice underway; Meet the Lady'Backs on Sunday

FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas head coach Susie Gardner is pleased with the opening days of practice for the 2005-06 season, and is looking forward to meeting with fans at Sunday afternoon’s Meet the Lady’Backs practice. Arkansas begins its 30th season of women’s basketball this year, and fans can get autographs and ask questions of the coaches and players of the 2005-06 team at the special practice. Practice begins at 3 p.m. on Oct. 23, which gives Lady’Back fans plenty of time to come to Walton Arena from the 12:30 p.m. soccer match at Lady’Back Field against top 25 Florida. Gardner spoke to the media on Thursday about the first days of practice, along with seniors Rochelle Vaughn and Sheree Thompson and junior Sarah Pfeifer. The jump-start provided by new NCAA rules this year combined with returning virtually the entire team from a 17-14 season in 2004-05 has Arkansas rolling in early practice. “The team looks in October like we did in mid-season last year,” Gardner said. “You’ll hear me say this a lot, but I’ve really enjoyed this rule change. It allowed us to get some things into practice earlier than usual.” Returning most of last year’s team also means the Lady’Backs will be small but fast in 2005-06, and Gardner plans to get the team back into the scrambling defense that made Arkansas the Southeastern Conference leader in steals last year. “We’re trying to counter our height with our full-court scramble defense,” she said. “We don’t want let the opponent set their offense. We basically have two choices. We can let them walk it up, set it up and lob it up inside to 6-5 over our six-footers, or we can scramble and make them struggle.” That’s just fine with her players. “We’re much stronger this year physically, and we’re ready to run and run,” Pfeifer said. Gardner said the higher pace wasn’t limited to defense. “We’ve got a lot of depth on the perimeter, and we’re going to put that to use,” she said. “I think the players like the idea that we’re going to rotate a lot of folks to keep that intensity up.” “The running style fits our team, and it keeps us from facing other team’s size,” Vaughn said. Aside from Pfeifer’s return from shoulder surgery immediately after last season and Kristin Moore’s completion of rehab from a torn ACL, Arkansas gets a full-speed Sheree Thompson in 2005-06. The senior guard tore her ACL before the 2003-04 season, and did not seem comfortable at times last year. “I think knowing the system this year makes me feel better on the floor,” Thompson said. Opening up the offense for the guard-heavy Lady’Backs has the team excited according to Gardner. “We started working on full-court passing drills this week, and you’ve never seen players as excited about a passing drill,” Gardner said. “If you ask them, they are really enjoying this. It’s going to be an adjustment for me, but I’m going to give them more freedom on the floor to push the ball.” While Arkansas lost three players from last year’s team and awaits the potential return of 6-0 forward Danielle Allen, Pfeifer was quick to point out she is not alone in the lane. “Hey, we’re getting back Kristin Moore, and that’s a whole extra inch,” Pfeifer joked. “And Whitney Jones is strong as an ox.” Arkansas’ three rookies – freshmen Jones and Ayana Brereton and junior college transfer Dominque Washington – have all made an impression. “We’re working them in, and everyone is very enthusiastic,” Pfeifer said. Arkansas hosts its Red-White Game next Thursday at 7 p.m. at Walton Arena, then plays its first exhibition game on Sunday, Nov. 6, against nearby Cameron University.