With the tragic, unexpected death of Shawntinice Polk on Sept. 26, the Arizona women’s basketball team has several question marks heading into the 2005-06 season. How will the Wildcats play without the three-time honorable mention All-American? Will the team learn how to live without the player known as much for her warm smile and laughter as for her playing ability? What will the coaching staff do with the new offense that was built around Polk? Will the team be able to compose itself and move forward?
Without a doubt, Polk’s presence will be sorely missed, both on and off the court. While most of the questions have yet to be addressed, let alone answered, Head Coach Joan Bonvicini realizes that her team must go on.
“Polkey’s passing definitely puts things into perspective and makes basketball really seem not that important,” Bonvicini explains. “That said, all of our players came here to play basketball and we must keep going. Her determination and resilience will be an inspiration to our team and will help carry us this season.”
Arizona is coming off a season that was plagued with injuries, yet the team managed to put together its eighth 20-win season in the last 10 years and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Last year, I was pleased that we went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but we were banged up and bruised the entire season,” Bonvicini says. “We’re a lot stronger this year than we were in the past and we’re hoping it will reduce the number of injuries.”
Bonvicini will look to seniors Natalie Jones and Anna Chappell to lead the team this season. “As our two seniors, Natalie and Anna will be our leaders,” Bonvicini says. “We’re going to rely heavily on them. Natalie has been more vocal and Anna is well respected by her teammates. We’re in good hands between the two of them.”
Below is a breakdown of the 2005-06 Wildcats.
Arizona is packed with talent and depth at the guard positions, as both of the team’s returning starters, Jones and sophomore Jessica Arnold, join six other players at these positions.
As many as three players could play point guard for the Wildcats this season. Sophomore Ashley Whisonant, who was an honorable mention Pac-10 All-Freshman pick last year, will challenge for the starting spot. The team’s co-Freshman of the Year, Whisonant attended the Dena Evans Point Guard College over the summer, which Bonvicini says encouraged her to become a more intelligent player. “Ashley had a very good freshman year,” she says. “She’s a great athlete, our best on-ball defender. Expect her to challenge for the starting spot.”
Freshman Malia O'Neal, a highly touted player out of Seattle, will also vie for time at point guard. A two-time Gatorade Washington Player of the Year, O’Neal averaged 18 points, eight assists, five rebounds and five steals per game as a senior. “Malia has a great feel for the game,” Bonvicini claims. “She’s a true point guard ?- like a coach on the floor.”
In addition, Jones, who primarily played shooting guard in the past, could see time at point guard this season. Jones was the only Wildcat to start all 32 games last year and showed signs of greatness, most notably when she finished with 23 points and eight assists against UC Santa Barbara and when she dropped 25 against UCLA.
“Natalie worked on her game all summer,” Bonvicini says. “She’s an excellent defender and wants to be a more consistent offensive threat.”
Arnold, who had off-season shoulder surgery after suffering an injury in the Pac-10 opener last season, is back to 100 percent and should start at shooting guard. “Jess had a great freshman year,” Bonvicini says. “She’s a great sparkplug for this team. We’re looking for her to increase her numbers and improve her defense.”
Another key off-guard is junior Joy Hollingsworth, who sat out last season after transferring from San Francisco. The 2002-03 West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year, she will vie for a starting spot. “The transfer year off really helped Joy adjust,” Bonvicini explains. “She’s a good shooter and a heady player.”
Junior Linda Pace adds depth at guard. “Linda worked hard on her game in the off-season,” Bonvicini notes. “She’s improved her jumper and her range, and has also improved her strength. She’ll be a good go-to player off the bench.”
Freshman Kelsey Burns, who won state titles in swimming and track in addition to being a four-time all-conference selection in basketball, will see time of the bench. “Kelsey is an excellent athlete,” Bonvicini says. “She’s a very good perimeter shooter and has great quickness. She’s working on her ball handling and defense.”
Rounding out the guards is sophomore Jessie Robinson, a walk-on who won two state championships at Thunder Ridge High School in Colorado, which was ranked as high as No. 12 nationally her senior season. “Jessie has a great attitude and is a hard worker,” Bonvicini explains. “Her father was a walk-on in college, so she decided to give it a shot.”
The Wildcats will have to adjust to playing without four-year starter Dee-Dee Wheeler, a three-time All-Pac-10 point guard. “We realize that we can’t fill Dee-Dee’s shoes with one person -- we’ll have to fill it with a few,” Bonvicini explains. “The good news is that we have players that got good playing time last year and we also had a good recruiting class.”
With Polk’s death, the biggest question mark for the Wildcats is obviously in the post. “While we don’t have the height we did with Polkey, we do have quickness and versatility,” Bonvicini explains. “Several players will have to step up. We’re not looking for one person to fill that void. It will take help from everyone.”
Freshman Amina Njonkou, a Cameroon native who played last season at West Memphis (Ark.) High School, will push for a starting spot. “Amina is a smart, versatile player,” Bonvicini notes. “She can shoot the three or take the ball down the court. She anticipates really well and is a very good rebounder. She’ll be a tough match-up for opponents.”
Sophomore Ch?© Oh, who saw time off the bench last season, will also see time this year. “Ch?© is versatile,” Bonvicini claims. “She played very important minutes last year and has a good feel for the game. She worked on her jumper on the off-season.”
Chappell, one of two seniors, will vie for playing time. “Anna has really improved her strength,” Bonvicini says. “She worked hard in the off-season and as a result will get increased playing time.”
The Wildcats also welcome newcomer Whitney Fields, who averaged 14.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.5 blocks per game and led her team to a state championship as a senior last year at Monsignor Pace (Fla.) High School. “Whitney is an excellent athlete,” Bonvicini says. “She’s a great rebounder ?- the Dennis Rodman type.”
Junior Rachael Schein, who sat out last season with an ACL tear, returns. “Rachael is coming off a redshirt year and will be returning to her natural position, the post,” Bonvicini explains. “She’s versatile and strong.”
Junior Shannon Hobson, who had back surgery over the summer, will take a medical redshirt this season as a precautionary measure. “We just want Shannon to get healthy,” Bonvicini says.
The Wildcats also welcome two new coaches to the staff this season, Todd Holthaus and Lisa Griffith. Holthaus came to Arizona from Flowing Wells High School, where he served as head coach for the past seven years. “I’ve known Todd for quite a while,” Bonvicini says. “He’s made a very easy transition into the college coaching realm. He has great people skills and connects well with the players. He’s also a great on-floor coach. He’s already shown he’ll be a great addition to our staff.”
Griffith, a four-year starter for the Wildcats from 1997-2000, joined the staff in August. “Lisa has shown immediately that she’s a great teacher,” Bonvicini explains. “She breaks things down well and has a great relationship with the players. It will be nice to have someone who played for me on our bench.”
As always, the Wildcats have a challenging schedule this season, one that includes 12 games against teams that made it to the NCAA Tournament last year.
The Wildcats open the season Nov. 18 at home against Loyola Marymount before heading to Anchorage, Alaska, for the Great Alaska Shootout. Arizona then returns to McKale Center to close out November with a game against Utah, a team that last year advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona opens December with the 14th annual Wildcat Classic. This year’s field includes Chicago State, Lehigh and Tulane. The Wildcats have claimed the championship of the tournament in each of the last three seasons.
The Wildcats then hit the road for a three-game road swing against Maryland, Fresno State and UC Santa Barbara, all of which played in the postseason last year.
The challenging conference slate begins in late December just before the holiday break. As a conference, the Pac-10 finished last season ranked as the third toughest conference in the nation after sending five teams to the NCAA Tournament.
“Last season was the first time in a number of years that the Pac-10 got five teams into the NCAA Tournament,” Bonvicini says. “The competition is as tough as it’s ever been and I only expect it to continue. It will make for a tough conference season. Every game will be difficult, both at home and on the road.”
Arizona opens Pac-10 play at home on Dec. 22 against Arizona State, followed by another pair of homes games against the Washington schools to close out 2005.
The Wildcats open 2006 with a Jan. 3 non-conference game against Wisconsin-Green Bay before hitting the road to face the L.A. schools Jan. 6 and 8.
After hosting the Oregon schools Jan. 12 and 14, Arizona plays four-straight road games ?- at Stanford, Cal, Washington and Washington State ?- to close out January.
The Wildcats open February at home against USC and UCLA, followed by games at Oregon and Oregon State. After closing out its regular-season home schedule with Cal and Stanford, Arizona concludes the regular season on the road in Tempe at instate rival Arizona State.
The Pac-10 Tournament will again be held at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. The 2006 tournament runs March 3-6.
McKale Center will then serve as host to NCAA Tournament first- and second-round games March 18 and 20. Should the Wildcats make the tournament, they will play in Tucson. “Since we’re hosting, we obviously want to be playing in the NCAA Tournament,” Bonvicini explains. “The season is long. We need to take it one game at a time.”