RALEIGH — Realizing that optimism remains something of a reflex every preseason, N.C. State women's basketball coach Kellie Harper nonetheless believes the program is gaining traction as it prepares for her third year in charge.
"When we first got here, we felt like we could do something the first year somehow," Harper said Thursday at the Wolfpack's media day. "... The second year, we knew it was going to be tough. We didn't realize how tough it was going to be, due to the injuries.
"Then I felt like with some of the pieces we've got coming back, I feel pretty good with where we are in terms of it being year three. I feel like we've made some ground, and we're moving. Now, we have to go out and produce. I can tell you that we've made ground, but we've got to go out and show it."
If injuries and a bevy of close losses sabotaged N.C. State's 2010-11 season - the Wolfpack finished 14-17, 4-10 in the ACC - Harper thinks the team's increased depth should help alleviate those issues.
Take the case of Marissa Kastanek, who just got back from representing the U.S. in the Pan-Am Games in Mexico.
Kastanek, a junior guard, averaged 33.5 minutes per ACC game last season. Harper thinks Kastanek is most effective when she plays no more than 28 minutes.
With the expectation that three of the team's four freshmen (Krystal Barrett, Kiana Evans and Erica Donovan) will see significant playing time, returning standouts such as Kastanek and Bonae Holston should be more effective as games - and the season - wear on.
"I think depth is going to help us tremendously," Harper said. "It holds your players accountable - I've got options. Last year, we just didn't have a whole lot of options. If they made a mistake, they had to keep playing. Now we can really hold them accountable."
One player who N.C. State might not count on is Tia Bell. The senior forward is still recovering from a knee injury she suffered in last year's season opener. Fellow senior Emili Tasler is doing a bit better with her knee issues, and Harper expects her to be ready for the season.
With all the tough losses and injuries to friends, Harper thought Kastanek was especially drained at the end of last season. With the summer to recharge and an invigorating experience in the Pam Am Games, Kastanek again looks at the glass as half-full. She said she's taking inspiration from a variant of the phrase, "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger."
"I think that fits us so well," Kastanek said. "We survived it, and we're all still here. We're all better this year than we were last year."