Minneapolis, Minn. — During the 1990s, Minnesota produced some of the best players in women's college basketball. Unfortunately for the Gophers, those Minnesota products wore the uniforms of Georgia, Penn State, Stanford, and Wisconsin. But this year Liz Podominick, a high school All-American from Lakeville, enrolled at the University of Minnesota.
Podominick says it's not surprising that so many of the state's recent high school stars shunned the U of M.
"I don't blame them," Podominick says. "In the past, the program wasn't very strong and there was a lot of turmoil. Now I think it's more stable, and so a lot of the talent wants to stay here now and stay close to home."
Minnesota lost about three-fourths of its games in four years under coach Cheryl Littlejohn. Littlejohn was fired in 2001, after an investigation confirmed player complaints that the coach had violated NCAA rules.
Two years ago her successor, Brenda Oldfield, put the team back on a winning track. But Oldfield left Minnesota after a single season for a job at the University of Maryland.
Last year Pam Borton arrived from Boston College, and coached the Gophers into the round of 16 in the NCAA's national championship tournament.
This year Borton is back. And she says recruiting trips have shown her how dramatically high school players have changed their perception of the U of M.
"It's completely made a 180-degree turn. Even right now, some of the kids who we don't feel can play here want to come here," says Borton. "It's made it a lot easier because we've established ourselves as an elite program in the nation, and they don't have to go somewhere else to get what they want -- to win a national championship and a Big Ten title. And we've got some of the best fan support in the country here."
Indeed, high school players have lots of company in their new enthusiasm for U of M women's basketball. This year's season ticket sales of 3,700 are an increase of more than 50 percent over last year. Last year the team abandoned its old home in the U of M Sports Pavilion -- which seats fewer than 6,000 -- in favor of Williams Arena, which holds 14,000.
Most of those seats were occupied when the Gophers' top rivals for the the Big Ten title came to town. Freshman Kelly Roysland played in Williams Arena while leading her Fosston High School team to three state championships. Roysland says the arena is part of what attracted her to the U of M.
"Just the atmosphere of the Barn, the raised floor, and how the crowd is right on top of you," says Roysland. "Just being able to watch some of the games last year -- like the Purdue and Penn State games, where it was just packed -- I couldn't wait to be a part of that."
This year the Gophers will be led by senior guard Lindsay Whalen of Hutchinson, who is on the short list of the best women players in the college game. Over the summer, Whalen helped a national under-21 team to a gold medal in international competition in Croatia.
Whalen says that experience will improve her play, and she hopes to pass some of that improvement along to her U of M teammates.
"To be considered a great player, you have to make your teammates better," Whalen says. "I think that raising the level of your teammates is something that you have to do as a leader and as a captain. You have to not only make yourself better, but raise the level of everyone you're playing around."
Sophomore point guard Shannon Schonrock of Winnebago says other Gophers benefit from playing alongside All-American Whalen.
"Her talent rubs off on you in practice," says Schonrock. "She pushes you to another level when you're guarding her, and also makes you better when you're playing with her. And I think it'll help her out a lot if other players can step up."
In her first three years as a Gopher, Whalen averaged 20 points per game. A comparable senior season will make her the highest scoring player in team history. But coach Borton says, like last year, defense is the key to this year's championship hopes.
"Towards the end of the season, I think our players finally bought into, 'Hey, defense is what's going to win games,'" says Borton. "Especially when you're in the NCAA tournament and you're playing on the road. You've got to win games by playing defense. And with our three NCAA games, that's how we won those games."
After two exhibition games, the Gophers begin this year's regular season play by hosting a four-team tournament that begins on Nov. 22.