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OldGoldFreePress COLUMNISTS | BACK TO Bob_Sternvogel'S COLUMNS

PURDUE WOMENS BASKETBALL:
March 4 Kristy Curry Radio Show


By Bob Sternvogel


Date: 3/05/2003
Author: Bob_Sternvogel
© Bob_Sternvogel

    Since point guard Erika Valek was one of the guests on this installment of the program, it was only fitting that host Tim Newton brought up the fact Erika had recently been named to the league coaches’ All-Big Ten first team. Although the media had relegated Valek to second-team status, Curry flatly declared that her peers’ endorsement “means more” than does the collective opinion of journalists, and that “Erika has earned” the right to be placed among the conference elite. Because both groups of voters acclaimed Penn State’s Kelly Mazzante as Player of the Year, Kristy conceded that it’s only natural to bestow such laurels on the league champions’ go-to player. Of course, she couldn’t resist alluding to the fact that Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen grabbed the honors last year, even after Purdue had steamed to an undisputed Big Ten title. Although Shereka Wright did receive first-team plaudits, Curry was “a little appalled and disappointed” that the junior from Texas did not join Mazzante and Whalen as unanimous selections. Kristy beseeched Shereka’s doubters to “have the guts to come up to me and explain your reasons”.

    Discussion then turned to the upcoming tournament that will determine the recipient of the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the NCAA “Big Dance”. When asked about potential “sleeper” teams, Curry said that she likes Michigan State’s style, and that the Spartans “make you beat their zone from outside”. Friday’s quarterfinal MSU/Ohio State match should be “fun to watch”, even if it takes on the look of a “first team to 30 points wins” affair.

    A member of the audience then asked Curry about nutrition. The coach revealed that her squad has settled on a standard pre-game meal of chicken breasts, cola, spaghetti, potatoes, fruit, and rolls. Next season’s menu may change somewhat, as the incoming freshmen will be asked if there are any foods they especially like or dislike. When a player is at a restaurant – whether on her own or as a representative of Purdue – the athlete can order “whatever she wants”. Just as a child “leaves your side eventually”, a young woman can’t be monitored around the clock, and must be trusted to make good dietary choices.

    When asked to comment on last Thursday’s triumph over Indiana (her 100th victory at the Purdue helm), Curry insisted she was more impressed with the “quality wins” accrued in conference tournaments and in the march to the 2001 national championship clash than with the fact she joined the “Century Club” so quickly. Since the Boilers had wrapped up the #3 seed in the Big Ten tourney before taking the court at Iowa Sunday, Kristy was concerned that her charges might lack an “edge”, but was heartened by the fact the Boilers were motivated enough to agree that “we want to finish second, not third”. By taking care of business on the Hawkeyes’ court, Purdue both equaled Minnesota’s 12-4 league mark and accomplished the goal of entering the conference tournament with momentum. Still, the relative lack of importance rendered Victory #101 less special than most other triumphs.

    Of course, the Boilers might have finished 13-3 had they won at Michigan State. Curry alluded to the possibility that the Vegas Gold and Black may have been exhausted in East Lansing after winning at Notre Dame two days earlier, but that the quick swing from the high to the low – followed as it was by significant recovery -- will likely pay dividends down the road. In the closing segment of the program, Kristy declared that the victory over the Fighting Irish might have provided more fun than had any of her other on-court successes of the 2002-03 campaign.

    Penn State coach Rene Portland has declared that her Lady Lions will be cutting down the nets at Conseco Fieldhouse next Monday. When asked to comment, Curry expressed surprise at those “pretty strong words”, adding that “I try not to give out bulletin board material.” Of course, the fact that only two top seeds have ever won the tournament means that the ultimate result would hardly have been a foregone conclusion even had the media not disseminated Portland’s brash prediction.

    Since the identity of Purdue’s Friday opponent won’t be known until the conclusion of Thursday’s Illinois-Michigan contest, preparation for the quarterfinal round will be concerned “more [with] what WE’RE doing” than with the tendencies of either the Fighting Illini or the Wolverines. Clock management will be addressed, as will setting screens, denying the entry pass, and “helping the helper” defensively. On March 7, the Boilers will adjust to the Conseco floor and rims during a 30-minute shoot-around. Later that day, Curry will devote a 45-minute walk-through to what to expect from the evening’s opponent, as well as how to counter anticipated strategic moves. Since the traveling party must be in Indianapolis for the whole day, the players will eat “a good breakfast”, as well as at least one other meal, as a team. Staying awake for a game that isn’t scheduled to tip off until 8:30 p.m. local time will be a challenge. If the Boilers win, they will practice from 2:30 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Conseco’s fitness center as the fieldhouse’s stands are turned over to spectators attending the Indiana state tournament finals.

    Curry has a special interest in the Class 3A clash, as Purdue recruit Katie Gearlds will be leading the Beech Grove Hornets against the Lady Indians of South Bend St. Joseph’s. Katie’s future coach believes that the star and her teammates make each other better, and that Katie’s accomplishments have brought deserved attention and pride to the Beech Grove community. Meanwhile, Erin Lawless and her Fenwick Friars are still alive in the Illinois AA (large-school) tournament. Both Gearlds and Lawless have proven they can win in hostile environments – especially Erin, who is the first girl in her state to contribute to at least 30 victories in each of her four seasons of high school basketball.

    The incoming freshmen will join Erika Valek (who will be a senior) for Purdue’s 2003-04 campaign. Valek began her portion of the show by admitting that she only played at 75-85% of her peak capacity as a sophomore. The injury that curtailed her ability to practice has healed, however, and Erika now feels her knees have held up enough that she can declare herself 100% healthy. Even though the Boilers were eliminated from last season’s NCAA tournament by Old Dominion, Valek’s performance against the Lady Monarchs greatly contributed to the surge in confidence that has carried over to the current season. Also important was Erika’s summer regimen of employing both therapeutic and competitive measures to strengthen her legs.

    Although her coaches constantly tell Erika that she “makes the difference” and “makes the team go”, Valek was “shocked” by her All-Big Ten first-team selection. Despite the fact she provides an “energy boost” along with assists and points, Valek felt she had been too inconsistent to earn a place among the league’s finest five. Of course, she’ll accept the honor, especially as it was bestowed by the likes of Curry and Portland as opposed to the ink-stained wretches of the Fourth Estate.

    While Valek admitted she doesn’t get to cook much, she felt compelled to set the record straight with regards to her now-infamous tuna casserole. Although the concoction does feature eggs and crackers, there’s no ketchup in it. Because her bedchamber somehow gets less heat than do the sleeping quarters of her housemates, Erika hangs out as much as possible in the room of either Lindsey Hicks or Beth Jones. The friends “have a blast” as they watch such programs as The Real World and American Idol. Since she likes “being a college student and goofing off”, Erika doesn’t watch much basketball during her free time. She makes an exception when Colorado State is on TV, as Valek and the Rams’ Jasai Ferrucho are both Colombians whose families settled in the Texas town of Lubbock upon arriving in the USA. Erika has also made a few trips to see sister Tatiana play for Zionsville High. Although she tries not to compare her game to Tatiana’s, Erika did state that “she plays more for fun, while I was always more obsessed with basketball”.

    Since Erika has always been among the shortest girls on the court, she “just kind of fell into” playing point guard. Although she’d like to venture into the paint more, she realizes she’s more valuable on the perimeter. Still, she fondly recalled venturing into the “giant zone” in the recent victory over Indiana. After tripping on somebody’s feet (“might have been mine, might have been another girl’s”), Erika realized she was the player closest to the basket. She thus shot the ball over her head towards the hoop. “It was ugly”, she admitted, “but it went in!”

    Because Michigan State basically sticks with a 2-3 zone, Valek knows what the Boilers will return to counter coach Joanne McCallie’s scheme. Since Ohio State constantly changes its defensive alignment, however, Erika must rely on her coaches and teammates to help her “recognize and adjust”. Either way, Valek is charged with making the correct choice when deciding whether to pass the ball to the post or the wing. She must strive to remain “calm and in control” while keeping track of where each player is on the floor. Although Purdue may have to face an ever-changing succession of 3-out, 2-3, and box-and-one alignments, “some plays work against anything”.

    Valek assured a questioner that he, when a member of the Mackey Arena crowd, contributes to the Boilers’ home-court advantage. “Since y’all have such enthusiasm and energy whether I make a bad pass or a good steal, you help us shake off our mistakes.” In contrast, she finds Minnesota’s Williams Arena the toughest Big Ten venue, as “the fans are on top of you. You can’t hear yourself think, and have to save up your energy just so you can scream.” Meanwhile, the Golden Gophers force you to play the full 94-foot length of the court for all 40 minutes, and feature the versatile Whalen. Lindsay was named as one of Valek’s toughest individual opponents, as was Mazzante. “Kelly’s always moving, so you can’t rest against her. When she doesn’t have the ball, you have to make sure you’re denying her.”

    Roger Blalock, meanwhile, has pleasant memories of Williams Arena. When he played for Purdue in the 1960’s, “Minnesota wasn’t very good, so we won there.” Of course, there were a few painful moments. Once, a Boilermaker ran so hard on the raised floor that he couldn’t stop before falling off the elevated surface. Now the associate athletics director in charge of (among other sports) women’s basketball, Blalock recently participated in the search that culminated in hiring of Dave Shondell to take the reins of the volleyball program. When seeking a head coach, “you look for a proven individual. You talk to other coaches to learn who’s preparing for a move to a higher level. Occasionally, one of these people you consult surprises you by expressing an interest in the position.” Because the assessments received are usually quite candid, “you quickly get down to a small list” of candidates. In the early stages of the search, it’s easy to keep a prospective hire’s interest secret, as “you don’t usually have to meet face to face”. Once only a few aspirants remain, however, “it’s virtually impossible to keep the names from becoming known”, so someone who has a secure job must decide if he or she has the confidence to risk both losing the current position and failing to land the Purdue post.

    While Shondell inherits a struggling program, Blalock is confident in Curry’s ability to keep her team among the league’s and nation’s elite. Regardless of whether a particular coach is charged with building or maintaining success, it is Roger’s job to make sure that the coach has the necessary tools to succeed. Facilities must be attractive to prospective players. Recruiting resources, in the form of both financial support and enough assistant coaches, must be provided. The program head’s scheduling preferences must be given support – while Curry relishes the challenges a tough slate provides, Shondell may want to afford his charges opportunities to build their confidence by defeating lower-echelon teams.

    As far as resolving player-coach conflicts, Blalock is “not a marriage counselor”. It’s best to prevent major differences of opinion by recruiting with an eye to ensuring that the prospect is a good “fit” with her future teammates in terms of character. The recruit should be as committed to being a true student as she is devoted to remaining an elite athlete. Fortunately, there seem to be more “good fits” in winning programs than in less-successful ones. Many of the problems that do arise in Curry’s program result from simple misinterpretation of comments. Additionally, “kids today are sensitive”, especially if they’ve never been criticized by coaches and have started at every previous level of basketball. Such athletes must learn the necessity of developing, and “maturing into”, the levels of skill and intensity needed for NCAA Division I competition.

    In the broadcast’s closing segment, Curry was asked if there had been any thought of moving Beth Jones to point guard against Ohio State’s “junk” defenses. Kristy said that she would like Jones to be able to take over at the “1” in such situations and see if additional shooting opportunities present themselves to Beth. However, Jones must first become a better passer. Meanwhile, the junior should develop the ability to work off the screens her teammates set for her. Still, last month’s loss in Columbus was less attributable to Beth’s shortcomings than to the inability of Hicks, Valek, and Mary Jo Noon to “step up”. One reason Jones struggled that day was that precious few screens were set for her. Although both sides played tough defense, Shereka Wright still managed to get her shots, as did the Buckeyes’ Caity Matter. As a senior, Beth will apparently be expected to do so as well.

    After Curry’s declaration that the victory over Notre Dame was perhaps “the most fun” of the season, Newton nominated the win at Illinois. Kristy agreed that the Boilers had put forth a great team effort in Champaign, one that will be necessary to duplicate if the Fighting Illini face Purdue Friday. Of course, Michigan posts Jennifer Smith and LeeAnn Bies have “stepped up” lately, so the Wolverines’ chances of denying Theresa Grentz a trip to the quarterfinals cannot be dismissed. Curry appeared to be rooting for such a result as she noted that while the Old Gold and Black had defeated Illinois twice this season, “it’s tough to beat a team three times in one year”. Also, the Fighting Illini are Kristy’s choice for “second-biggest sleeper” in the upcoming tourney. Should the Boilers be handed a chance to knock off the Wolverines for the second time this season, of course, Curry must hope that her comments are not twisted into “bulletin board material” by her Ann Arbor colleague, Sue Guevara…

    Next week’s program will feature assistant coach Kelly Curry and All-America candidate Shereka Wright. On March 18, Mary Jo Noon will be at Chumley’s in downtown Lafayette for the season finale.




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