Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Philly Accent Returns To Penn State

By Mel Greenberg

Rising and maintaining its status as a national power from the late 1970s through the middle of the last decade, Penn State women’s basketball was accentuated by an influx of talent from the Philadelphia area along the way.

Two players – Rashana Barnes and Andrea Garner – were part of the Nittany Lions’ run to their only NCAA Women’s Final Four appearance when Philadelphia was the host city in 2000.

Some other Philly notables, including a few from South Jersey, through the years were Lynn Dougherty, Tina Nicholson, Jackie Donovan, Kahadeejah Herbert, and Annie Troyan.

Former Immaculata star Rene Portland from suburban Broomall was the architect of success as a longtime coach of the Blue and White until a slide began in 2005-06. The dive culminated in her departure after the 2007 season, highlighted during the downfall by a sexual discrimination charge from one of Portland’s players.

Former Notre Dame associate head coach Coquese Washington replaced her and began the rebuilding process that could result in a return to the NCAA tournament, of which Penn State is a host site for the first and second round next spring.

Furthermore, Washington and her staff have regained the ability to mine blue chippers out of Philadelphia with the addition of 5-9 freshman guard Maggie Lucas of Narberth and German town Academy and 6-5 forward center Talia East, a graduate of the Friends School.

That brings the total to four, including 5-10 junior guard Renee Womack from Lansdale and Methacton High and senior co-captain Julia Trogele of Devon and Villa Marie Academy.

“I credit all that to our assistant coaches and our players,” Washington said Monday at the annual media day inside the Bryce Jordan center for the Penn State women. “When kids come on campus they hang out with our players and they are a good bunch. They are a fun bunch and they are good kids so they help set the stage for kids coming in – the high school players for what kind of program this is going to be.

“It hasn’t been hard for those guys to build relationships with our future players,” Washington added. “And our assistant coaches do a good job getting down in Philadelphia and finding the talent, creating the relationships that bring kids up here, unofficially for a football game or whatever the case may be.

“But I just think we’ve done a lot of work and we have good kids and that makes it easy.”

Incidentally, a new assistant coach this season is Fred Chmiel, who was an aide to Dawn Staley her last two seasons at Temple and has spent the last two seasons at San Diego State.

Trogele, the lone senior on the roster, is the last link between the Portland era and the Nittany Lions’ efforts to return to glory.

As a recruit already committed to a collegiate career here in Happy Valley, Trogele got the word from Portland personally of the coach’s departure. Since then she has had to endure records of 13-18 and 11-18 as a freshman and sophomore. The first winning effort since 2005 came last season when Penn State returned to the winning side at 17-14 and an appearance in the National Women’s Invitational Tournament where the Nittany Lions fell at home to Hofstra in the first round.

A six-game winning streak carried Penn State to its first ranking in the Associated Press poll since 2005. But then came a loss to Purdue in overtime in a Big Ten game and a 2-10 record down the stretch after the ranking.

“I think we got a little bit too far ahead of ourselves starting with Purdue,” Trogele said Monday.

She went on to give a brief narrative of her career here that began with direct word of Portland’s departure.

“I do remember getting that call from Rene and finding out she was going to resign,” Trogele recalled. “At first, I felt like, er, `I don’t know how I feel about the whole situation.’ And Coach ‘Quese called me and I met with her. I was still a little doubtful.

I’m not going to say these past three years have been Cinderella stories,” she continued. “They certainly have not.

“But it’s all about maturing and growing and it’s made me not only a better person but also a better player from it,” Trogele said. “I’ve learned to overcome adversity from anything and it helps in that whenever any obstacle comes throughout the season, I’ve already probably been through it the past three years so I’ll be able to tackle that.”

Trogele went into a little detail on the change in emotions that occurred when the team looked like it might finish strong and do well in the Big Ten tournament.

“It’s definitely difficult to go from a six-game winning streak back down to something we’ve already been used to,” she said. “To pull yourself out of a rut like that is always difficult but I think that we have a new approach to everything this season and we’re looking to stay consistent and we learn from every game.”

Trogele noted the extra emphasis on reaching the NCAA tournament considering her team could be on its own floor in the early rounds. There’s also a chance to be placed in the bracket leading to the regional finals at Temple’s Liacouras Center.

“That’s a motivation,” Trogele said. “Nobody wants to sit in the bleachers and find somebody else’s playing on your home court. I remember some of the previous Rene players saying that it happened before that they had to sit through an NCAA tournament here and it was awful. So I don’t want to ever experience that. It’s certainly a driving force to be successful this season.”

Meanwhile, Womack is returning to active duty after a torn ACL on her left knee sidelined her for the final 17 games of last season.

Washington said the staff is being cautious about bringingWomack along.

“There’s no need to be putting on extra stress in October,” she said.

As for Womack, “I’m feeling good,” she smiled. “I did a lot of rehab work over the summer and I’m starting to work with the team in practices and I’m trying to go full speed.”

Asked if there’s any extra caution because of the recurring ACL injury that hit UConn’s Caroline Doty, a Germantown Academy graduate, Womack related, “I thought about that and my mom asked me if I was worried about tearing it again, but I’m not.

“But even if there’s people who tear it twice, there’s people who tear in once and they’re fine for the rest of their career,” she said. “Hopefully I’ll be that person.”

Lucas and East, both blue chip talents, became friends when they arrived on their official visit to Penn State.

Washington is counting on Lucas’ threat as a three-point ace on the perimeter to fortify Penn State’s offense.

“I told her when she’s on the floor I want her shooting the ball,” the Penn State coach said during her session with the media before the one-on-one player interviews began. “We’ve talked and I told her, `I would rather have you go 0-for-22 than 0-for-2. I just want you to shoot the ball because that’s what you do well.’”

That’s fine with Lucas, who became the first Penn State women’s recruit to win the three-point shooting contest at the McDonald’s All-Star high school game last spring.

“I’m honored that she has that confidence in me and it makes me feel better going into the season knowing that your coach has that trust in you,” Lucas said. “You miss five shots and she believes the next shot’s going in so that makes me believe ten times more the next shot’s going in.”

Lucas picked Penn State over Maryland, Ohio State, Vanderbilt and Boston College.

“I definitely just clicked with Coquese on a level that I didn’t with the other coaches I talked to,” she said of her decision. “I felt a really good sincerity when I talked to her. I clicked with the girls on the team. I just felt comfortable here.”

East talked about the budding friendship with Lucas after they met.

“We went to each other’s houses and ate cookies and became best friends,” she said and also mentioned why she picked the Nittany Lions over California and VCU.

“I would definitely say the coaches,” East said. “Just their passion for the game and I had trust they were going to take us far. Once I met Maggie, I said, `Oh, I’m coming.’

“Also, in terms of the program, knowing if we won an NCAA championship we’d be the first to win it here in women’s basketball,” East added with an eye towards a bunch of friendly arenas when March Madness arrives.

“We are saying, `Go hard, finish the season strong and you play at home. That’s our number one goal.”



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