When the University of Tampa women's basketball team tips off its season at 8 tonight at Columbus State, it will be the first time since 1989 it has done so with a coach other than Tom Mosca. After 13 years and an average of 17 victories per season, Mosca has moved on.
Enter Tom Jessee. And enter his coaching style and the attention to detail that goes along with it.
Last season, despite a 16-12 record, UT was last in the Sunshine State Conference in scoring defense and rebounding. Improving on those numbers are priorities, Jessee said.
"Sometimes change for whatever reason can be a good thing," the 37-year-old coach said. "We've worked hard to bring a new approach to the program and we're placing emphasis on playing solid defense and being better rebounders."
That will depend on a solid core of returnees, featuring seniors Liz Wetenkamp (guard), Andrea Nordholt (guard/forward), Jessie McDowell (center) and April Hinton (forward), along with junior Yushonda Morse (forward). UT graduated leading scorer Nicole Blair and will be without All-SSC sophomore Juanita McClinton, a medical redshirt this season. Still, with 11 upperclassmen and four players who each logged 20 or more starts last year, the Spartans can boast an experienced, veteran team.
Juniors Yoshiko Ozawa, Melissa Leonard and Tiffany Pope will help off the bench.
"The kids have been outstanding in practice and have done everything we've asked of them," Jessee said. "They have picked up the system and we've seen improvement every day."
Jessee comes to UT after nine seasons at Bluefield State (W.Va.) where he won four conference championships and had one appearance in the NAIA sweet sixteen.
"What we're trying to do here is build on this foundation," Jessee said. "And these players are vital to the first part of this building stage."
And that's where the five veterans come in.
Jessee is relying heavily on that group to help the Spartans improve on a 6-8 conference record and sixth-place finish a year ago. The 6-foot-2 McDowell will be key on defense and in rebounding from her center spot. McDowell's 74 blocked shots led the SSC last season. Morse has improved post skills, and along with Hinton, might be depended on for scoring.
"This is a very senior- and junior-oriented lineup," Jessee said. "And hopefully they will get more comfortable with what we are trying to do as we go on.
"We want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season, not at the beginning. There's an art to that and that's what we're trying to accomplish."
CROSS COUNTRY: Elias Gonzales will compete in the Division II national championship meet Saturday at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. Gonzales earned the invitation after his sixth-place finish in the Division II South Region two weeks ago.
The Sunshine State Conference runner of the year, Gonzales ran a 10K time of 31 minutes, 57 seconds at the region meet to qualify for nationals.
VOLLEYBALL: When the Spartans begin the postseason this weekend, they'll do so with numerous regular-season conference awards.
Setter Amber Langston was named freshman of the year and Chris Catanach was named coach of the year after UT went 25-6 and undefeated in conference play. Also, hitter Ania Ruiz was named player of the week for the final week of the regular season.
WOMEN'S SOCCER: After helping the Spartans to a second-place finish in the SSC, defender Ginger Lynn was named the conference's defensive player of the year. A senior, Lynn helped UT finish 8-8-2 overall and 7-3-2 in the conference.