With nicknames like “Little Mack Truck” and “Junkyard Dog” flying around the gym during the Gophers women’s basketball team’s practice, the Sports Pavilion resembles a WWF match. But these nicknames seem to fit the 1998 team’s hardcore attitude.
“We told the new players, `You’re not a freshman, you’re a basketball player. If you don’t want to work hard, go home,'” senior guard Mindy Hansen said.
Coming off a 4-23 season, a more fiesty approach seems necessary. In her second season at Minnesota, coach Cheryl Littlejohn has chosen to toss aside talk of the past and her five-year contract, which was finalized last week.
“I think the most important thing to focus on is these 13 young women who have worked hard,” Littlejohn said. “This team right here has a different personality.”
The 1998 Gophers team not only brings a war-like attitude to the court when they open the exhibition season Thursday against Shelen, a club team from Krasnoyarsk, Russia, but also a more balanced attack. Littlejohn said this year’s team has more weapons, posing threats from inside and outside.
Freshman Cassie VanderHeyden, who is listed as a probable starter at point guard for the opener, is the Gophers’ most accurate shooter from behind the three-point line. Besides being a dependable scorer, the 5-foot-6 player from East Bethel, Minn., is looked to for leadership.
“She just runs the show,” Hansen said. “She just picked up the role like it was natural.”
But for VanderHeyden, who was recruited by several other schools including Georgetown and Boston, giving the team direction is all a part of the point guard’s job.
“I’m an extension of (Littlejohn) on the court,” VanderHeyden said.
Like VanderHeyden, senior Sonja Robinson provides leadership for the team. The 5-foot-10 senior from Scottsdale, Ariz., played in 25 games last season, starting 14 of those.
In Robinson’s three seasons with the team, Minnesota has only been victorious 12 times. For this reason, Robinson has been extra motivated this year.
“I’ve been working hard,” Robinson said. “I’ve got to play down with the big girls in the Big Ten.”
When the Big Ten season opens on Dec. 28 at Wisconsin, Robinson will have plenty of experience with going inside against bigger girls. The Gophers literally have a huge first-year player in Kim Bell.
The 6-foot-7 center will be the tallest player to play in Minnesota history when she makes her debut.
“She’s the biggest girl in the Big Ten,” Robinson said. “Nobody can stop that hook shot.”
The dependable hook shot is not the only contribution Bell makes to the team. With her height, the highly sought after recruit will make a difference in the Gophers defensive game, rebounding and blocking the shots of opposing teams.
“I expect a lot of intensity, scrambling for the ball,” Bell said.
With the addition of such players as VanderHeyden and Bell and the familiar faces of Robinson and Hansen, the Gophers have only begun to gel. But with some key execution, Minnesota is expecting to overcome its youthfulness.
“We are going to go out every night and put our hearts on the floor,” Robinson said. “The attitude this year is that we deserve to win.”