Oct. 11, 2011
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The numbers are staggering.
Seven consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and seven consecutive opening-round wins. Three straight seasons of at least 20 wins or more. Two regular-season ACC co-championships in the past three years. A perennial top-15 team.
Perhaps the most appropriate number, though, is 98 when talking about the 2011-12 Florida State women's basketball team -- as in the number of wins that former players Courtney Ward and Christian Hunnicutt helped earn during their fantastic four-year careers.
Ward, the program's all-time 3-point leader, and Hunnicutt, last year's ACC Defensive Player of the Year, tied the school record for most wins during a women's basketball career. If this year's 'Noles want to make it eight consecutive trips to the Big Dance, hit the 20-win plateau once again, push for ACC glory and remain one of the top teams in the nation, they must now do so without two proven winners.
"They were vital roles to our success not only last year but for their four years here," said head coach Sue Semrau, who is now in her 15th season in Tallahassee. "Experience is a hard thing to replace. The nice thing about our team this year is that even though we lost those two we return a huge core of players who now are one year more experienced, one year stronger and one year more skilled."
Semrau's confidence in her team stems from the foundation that has been built over the last 15 years. Before Ward and Hunnicutt it was Jacinta Monroe, Alysha Harvin and Angel Gray. Before that terrific trio it was the dynamic duo of Mara Freshour and Tanae Davis-Cain and the list goes on and on.
Now, it's time for a new crop of Seminoles to step up and fill the void left from those that have graduated before them.
Semrau thinks that two sophomores in particular are up for the task.
"I am excited about the growth in the players that we have," Semrau said. "Obviously we knew there would come a day when Courtney and Christian would graduate and move on. So we went out and recruited Olivia Bresnahan and Tay'ler Mingo. It was always part of the plan that they would learn as understudies. The same thing was true for Courtney when she got here. She had to wait her turn to shine and she did."
Charged with helping polish Mingo, Bresnahan, Leonor Rodgriguez and freshmen Kristi Mokube, Ebony Wells and Emma Loucks, are a group of experienced veterans. And no current player knows more about what it takes to meet the lofty expectations that Semrau's program yearly warrants than the team's lone senior, Cierra Bravard.
An All-ACC First Team selection and honorable mention All-American as a junior, Bravard cemented her place as one of the top players in the nation last year and already has the preseason recogntion to prove it this year.
This month Bravard has already been named to the John R. Wooden Award Women's Preseason Top 30 list and the Wade Award Preseason Watch List. She's also been recognized as a preseason All-America First Team selection by The Sporting News.
Bravard's transition into a go-to player, nationally-recognized name and unquestioned leader isn't by chance. The Sandusky, Ohio native put in the necessary time to make that happen and because of her tireless work ethic, Bravard's senior season has a strong possibility of being her best.
"She has gotten committed and stayed committed," Semrau said. "The thing about Cierra is that once she took that first step in, then she was all in. She is a player that in her time already has dropped 45 pounds and has kept it off. She has continued to become a better athlete every year as well as a better basketball player."
In addition to her dominating presence in the paint during games, Semrau credits Bravard's full effort in practice with helping bring out the best in her fellow post players.
"They can see it in pick-up," Semrau said about forwards Chelsea Davis, Natasha Howard, Lauren Coleman, Wells and Mokube. "They turn around and say, 'I don't want to guard her.' It's a great thing to be with them in individual workouts and practice and say, 'Well you are guarding her.' It makes them better. I think it has been interesting to watch Chelsea's growth underneath Cierra. It has been fantastic."
While Davis continues to benefit from Bravard's tutelage, Howard will be asked to take the next step in her development.
Howard came to Tallahassee last season as the most highly hyped and anticipated recruit in the history of women's basketball at Florida State and she didn't disappoint. Howard started every game as a true freshman and earned freshman All-American and All-ACC Freshman Team honors.
But for everything good that Howard did on the court, there was always a feeling that she had so much more room for improvement. It's a scary thought for anyone that will have to play against the Seminoles the next three years -- especially considering the fact that she has used her first offseason in the program to hit the weight room and the practice courts at the Basketball Training Center.
"Her strength is at a completely different point," Semrau said. "I think that is huge. She has better balance now. She turned the ball over a little more than we wanted her to last year because she didn't have great balance at that speed. Now her balance at that speed has improved and her ball handling has improved. Her potential is unlimited."
Deluzio, a sharp-shooting guard with the ability to take defenders off the dribble, and Clayton, FSU's top overall athlete, are expected to team with Bravard in creating a playmaking, leadership-providing core that every championship contender must have.
"Now everybody steps into a different role this season," Semrau said. "Cierra has done her work all summer, 'Lex' has done her work all summer and 'Chas' has done her work all summer. Those are three kids that have the credibility to lead. I think that's really the most vital part of it. You don't want to follow someone that hasn't put in the work and those three have put in the work.
"I think this team is in great shape because of them."