With the calendar settling on July, women's basketball coaches and players from Duke, N.C. State and North Carolina are preparing for the 2010-11 season.
Coaches hit the road at the start of the month for the summer recruiting period, while players returned to campuses for the start of the second summer class sessions.
Focus has shifted from vacations to the start of the season in November, with each of the teams looking somewhat different from last season.
Duke has the nation's top recruiting class, while North Carolina standout Jessica Breland returns to the Tar Heels' lineup. N.C. State welcomes back injured forward Tia Bell as the Pack reloads its roster to replace three key seniors.
There's been little downtime, with players keeping a workload of classes, part-time camp jobs and early-morning runs.
"We have a full slate four days a week," UNC senior Cetera DeGraffenreid said. "Go, go, go. It's always something you're doing to get better, if not in the gym shooting by yourself, it's playing pickup with the team. It's a full slate."
Last season, the Heels were a rudderless team without Breland, the junior who was selected as a preseason All-American candidate but sat out the entire season after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Jessica's back 100 percent," UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "She looks great."
Breland was back at practice late last season in a limited capacity but has since returned to a full regimen of weights and calisthenics.
Hatchell said Breland, a redshirt senior, returns as the leader the team needed last season when it finished 19-12 and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Breland's experience, combined with that of senior guards Italee Lucas and DeGraffenreid, provide a base for the talented freshman class the Heels brought in last season.
Hatchell said she expects more from the sophomores who were considered the best freshman recruiting class in the nation before the season started. The freshmen contributed, particularly Cierra Roberston-Warren and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, but they lacked consistency.
In the summer heat, Ruffin-Pratt has dropped 15 pounds. "She's lean and mean," Hatchell said. "That will make her more athletic and quicker out there."
With players working with team trainers, fitness has been atop the team's goals. The players have drawn motivation from some early polls dropping them low in the preseason rankings. They work out together, some mornings hitting the weight room at 7 a.m. Players have also organized pickup games, hoping to develop some of the chemistry that was missing last season.
As they progress physically, Hatchell has called for her players to rededicate themselves to smarter, more mature basketball. She said Breland's presence and leadership has sparked a change in their overall attitude and provided confidence.
"I expect a different mentality," she said. "It's already there."
Seven of the Blue Devils' returning players are enrolled in the second summer school session, including senior Jasmine Thomas, who was originally expected to be in Washington participating in an internship with the WNBA's Washington Mystics. The team's leading scorer will complete her job responsibilities on campus, where she can prepare teammates for the season. The Devils are considered one of the nation's preseason top-five teams.
Rested and rejuvenated, Thomas returns to campus as the Devils' highly touted freshman class arrives. Guards Chelsea Gray, Chloe Wells, Richa Jackson and Trica Liston and forward Haley Peters comprise the top recruiting class in the nation.
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said it will be important for Thomas, whose versatility as a guard will be showcased more next season, to blend with the newcomers.
"Time spent with the other guards, particularly Chelsea Gray and Chloe Wells, I think will be very valuable time spent," McCallie said.
Rising junior guard Chelsea Hopkins transferred to San Diego State, making room in the backcourt for various new combinations. The coaching staff will have a lot of choices to make about playing time.
Summer games should help the Devils create a new on-court identity after losing three seniors in Joy Cheek, Keturah Jackson and Bridgette Mitchell.
They also will do so temporarily without sophomore center Allison Vernerey, a native of Alsace, France, who returned home and is expected back in early August. She was originally scheduled to play for the French national team, though a strain to her calf will keep her out of competition for at least four weeks.
"She can't risk that leg," McCallie said. "That leg has to heal."
Others also continue to heal, with rising senior Karima Christmas undergoing shoulder surgery and Krystal Thomas recovering from ankle surgery.
The Devils hope the freshmen quickly adapt to their new college surroundings and elevated level of play. McCallie would not speculate about where the group might fit into the rotation but expects her returning players to provide a taste of what it's like to play in the ACC.
"Well see how people can make the transition," she said. "The high school comparisons don't hold up anymore."
Wolfpack coach Kellie Harper asked her returning players to hit the weight room. Last season, the Pack made its name as a pesky defensive-minded squad that nagged and swarmed opponents.
Harper wants more of the same, but tougher and better conditioned. She sees a roster without senior rebounding specialist Lucy Ellison and knows what's in store.
"We don't have Lucy on the team," she said. "Everyone has to pitch in and make up for the lack of that one person's strength. If we're stronger as a team, I think we're going to be more confident with our ability."
The Pack will determine exactly what that ability is as the team comes together during the summer. They will need to find new consistent scoring options, considering the graduation of senior shooting guard Nikkita Gartrell.
Marissa Kastanek, the ACC's freshman of the year, will be back, and Harper has asked the rising sophomore to add a mid-range jump shot to complement her scrappy driving and 3-point shooting ability.
"If we can add that consistent jumper, I think we'll find she's a better player," Harper said.
Harper, who enters her second season at State, has asked returning players to guide incoming freshman guards Myisha Goodwin and Nashika Williams and forwards Kody Burke and Devin Griffin. Chemistry, she said, may make the difference for a team that will be undersized and pressed to find scoring.
Bell, a rising senior, is slated to return to the court in the fall after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury last season. Harper said Bell is continuing to rehabilitate her knee.
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