Golden Grizzlies to Prove They Belong

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Golden Grizzlies being crowned as Champions

The 1999-2000 Oakland University women’s basketball team began last season as unproven, but that all changed when the Golden Grizzlies won the Mid-Continent Conference regular-season championship. OU went 13-3 in the conference to win it outright and earned the right to call itself a champion.

The 2000-2001 squad looks to do the same ... prove they belong.

"I think we are an established Division I program now that we have proven some things," said head coach Beckie Francis. "We shocked the conference last season, but didn’t shock ourselves."

OU ended the regular season as the number one seed in the Mid-Con tourney and defeated UMKC in the first game 68-63. Unfortunately for the Golden Grizzlies, the Crusaders of Valparaiso defeated OU 83-66 in the second round. This didn’t leave a good taste in the mouths of the Golden Grizzlies mouth and they look to improve.

"We were extremely happy with the way our season went last year," said Francis. "This, however, doesn’t mean we liked the way it ended in the Mid-Con tournament and we hope to improve on that."

The Golden Grizzlies enjoyed the regular season championship, but would have enjoyed an NCAA bid even more. With three players joining the program at over six foot, Oakland looks to match up better in size, and defend its title as Mid-Con champs and receive that NCAA bid.

"I think some of the teams had an advantage in the inside last season," Francis said. "We’ve brought in some size at the forward position that should help us make another run."

The run coach Francis refers to is another solid Mid-Continent Conference record.

"I think if you look at our schedule you will see that we have beefed it up to get us ready for the conference season," Francis said. "Facing teams like Nebraska, Colorado State, UC-Santa Barbara and Louisville will give us all we can handle."

The Golden Grizzlies have their hands full as they will face three teams that made the NCAA tournament in 2000. UC Santa Barbara went into the tourney as the number 13 team in the country and was ranked as a number four seed, while Nebraska and San Diego entered the tournament as number 12 seeds.

"Playing this caliber of teams on the road will give us an idea of where we stand against the Division I elite," said Francis. "Playing in a hostile environment will give our players experience and hopefully we will be able to use this experience to improve on last year."

With four starters returning, the Golden Grizzlies look like they can prove they belong among the top in the conference. Those four starters include senior Beth Zeone (Dunlap, Illinois/Dunlap HS), junior Sarah Judd (Eastpointe/Harper Woods Regina HS) and sophomore Katie Wolfe (Cedar Springs/Cedar Springs HS).

"If these three individuals can repeat their performances from last season, than the sky is the limit for this year’s basketball team," Francis said.

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Former OU player Sara Skutt

This threesome accounted for 67 percent of the Golden Grizzlies offensive output last year. The "three-headed monster" averaged double-figures and finished in the top five in points per game in the Mid-Con.

"It’s always nice to have one or two players that can score points in every game, but is especially nice when you have three that can do it every night," Francis said.

This isn’t the only good thing that Oakland has to bring to the table this year. The Golden Grizzlies come into this season with size and depth.

"Christina Blandford (So., 6-1, Berkley/Bishop Foley HS) is coming off a redshirt season and will give us another strong rebounder," Francis said. "The additions of true freshman Sarah Yaksich (Fr., 6-1, Dearborn/Divine Child HS) and Connie Longer (Fr., 6-1, Danbury, Ohio/Danbury HS) will help our size in the frontcourt."

Oakland’s recruiting class, filled with five true freshmen and one junior college transfer, face the challenge of continuing the winning ways at Oakland.

"This year’s team is a completely different one from a year ago," Francis said. "Last year we had three seniors and a lot of experience. This year we have more depth, but lack experience."

The true freshmen are going to get a chance to prove themselves early with games against big time Division I programs. These games will allow Oakland to gain much needed experience.

"Our schedule will give a lot of these players very good experience and will help them down the road," Francis said. "The early non-conference games will be very important in preparing for our conference season."

Down the road lies the Mid-Continent Conference opponents who await redemption. Oakland knows this season will not be easy with all the teams gunning for them.

"Last year our conference opponents didn’t know what to expect," Francis said. "This year they know that we are going to have a solid team and they will bring their best game against us."

To combat that competition Oakland returns four starters, including three that received all-Mid-Con honors – Judd (1st team), Wolfe (1st team), Zeone (2nd team) and Romica Clint (So., 5-5, Toledo, Ohio/Start HS).

Leading the way for the Golden Grizzlies in the backcourt will be Clint. Clint started in 15 of the 28 games played in for OU last year. Clint averaged 20.3 minutes per game, 4.9 points per game, 2.3 rebounds per game and 1.9 assists per game ... totaling 137 points, 52 assists and 34 steals.

"Ro brought strength and quickness to the guard position last year and we really liked the way she played defense," Francis said.

The supporting cast around Clint include junior college transfer Lori Kipp (Phoenix, Arizona/Phoenix JC) and true freshmen Bobbie Bieszki (Shelby Twp./Notre Dame Prep) and Jodi Young (Flushing/Flushing HS).

Kipp is coming off a great season at Phoenix JC where her team made it to the national junior college tournament. Kipp averaged 14 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals per game in her sophomore season.

Bieszki earned 12 varsity letters in high school and was named to the all-state team from 1997-2000.

"Bobbie brings athleticism to the backcourt and a good outside shot," Francis said.

Young led her squad to a 24-2 record and reached the quarterfinals in senior season where she averaged 20.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. She earned all-state honorable mention plaudits her sophomore season and all-state first team as a junior and senior.

The wing position will be manned by senior Zeone, Wolfe and freshman Naomi Nickleberry (Saginaw/Arthur Hill).

"We are looking at Beth to be a key player as well as leader for this team," Francis said.

Zeone started in 22 of the 29 games she played in last year and finished second in the Mid-Con with 17.4 points per game.

She had 11 20+ games and scored in double figures 22 times. She closed the season scoring 12 or more points in 15 of the final 16 games.

Wolfe is coming off a sensational freshman season where she earned the newcomer of the year award in the Mid-Continent Conference, all-Mid-Con first team honors in both coaches and media polls and freshman of the year. Wolfe started in all 29 games for the Golden

Grizzlies averaging 17.3 points per game which ranked her third in the conference. She finished second on the squad in points per game and rebounding (5.0/g).

Nickleberry led the Arthur Hill Lumberjacks to a number two ranking in the state and was a finalist in the Ms. Basketball race in 1999. She was elected to the Detroit Free Press All-State first team and was the team’s most valuable player in 1999.

The frontcourt looks to Judd, Blandford, Longer and Yaksich to guide the way.

Judd has had two successful seasons at Oakland. She led the conference last year with 10 double-doubles and finished

fourth in scoring with 16.9 points per game. Judd finished second in the conference by grabbing 8.6 rebounds per game and had 81 assists (10th in conference), 53 blocks (3rd in conference) and 34 steals. Her field goal percentage of .546 (191-350) ranked second in the conference.

Blandford is coming off a redshirt season and will give Oakland more size underneath. She transferred to Oakland last year from Bowling Green where she earned one varsity letter.

"Christina has a good touch from the outside and has great rebounding skills," Francis said.

Longer played for Danbury High School where she was selected as the league’s most valuable player. Longer was the league’s top scorer and will bring more depth at the forward position for OU.

Yaksich is the final freshman Oakland has brought in to enforce inside play. She guided Divine Child to the state quarterfinals in 1999 and led the team to a 24-2 record. Yaksich averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds per game and was selected to the all-state team.

The Golden Grizzlies have a tough task of getting through this non-league schedule unblemished, but the experience is unmeasurable.

"Our players are excited about our non-conference schedule and particularly about going to Nebraska who attracts 5,000 students to watch their games," Francis said. "This will provide an NCAA tournament game atmosphere and will give us a chance to measure ourselves against the best."

With this type of schedule OU knows they are going to have it’s hands full. The Golden Grizzlies take on five opponents that were ranked in the top 35 last year and have established a winning tradition. These games may or may not have the outcome that OU wants, but they will give the Golden Grizzlies a chance to prove that they belong.

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