Saturday, November 3, 2012

Despite injuries, Hampton embraces high expectations

Alyssa Bennett
It didn't take until "midnight" for the "madness" to begin at Hampton.

Unfortunately for the Lady Pirates, we're talking about injury madness, women's basketball's all-too-common affliction and something that, at least in the early going, has strip-mined the depth of a potentially formidable roster.

So when the Lady Pirates showcased their 2012-13 edition Friday night at the HU Convocation Center, among those relegated to the sidelines were:

- Ariel Phelps - The driven 6-2 senior forward who led the Lady Pirates in offensive rebounding a year ago and is particularly valued for her willingness to do the dirty work inside. Phelps stepped on a ball early in preseason and messed up her right ankle. She's out indefinitely.

- Jo Guilford - The former Old Dominion standout had surgery to address chronic knee trouble. Guilford shrugged off the injury, flashing one of her stunning smiles and insisting she'd be out only a couple of weeks. But even if she's right, tack on at least a couple additional weeks for her to regain her basketball legs.

- Lauren Johnson - A defensive whiz at point guard at Darton State College a year ago, Johnson was being counted on to help fill the oversized shoes of the great Jericka Jenkins. That is, until Johnson tore her ACL.

At least Phelps and Guilford could each still wind up being significant contributors. But neither figures to be in the mix when the Lady Pirates kick off their brutal non-conference schedule Friday at Southern Mississippi.

Still, head coach David Six knows no one will feel sorry for the three-time defending MEAC champions. So the Lady Pirates aren't wasting time feeling sorry for themselves, either.

"The expectations here never change," Six shouted over the hip-hop beats during the festivities Friday. "And we still have some nice pieces. A lot of nice pieces."

Given the injuries, Six wasn't about to offer bold predictions. Instead, he talked in terms of capabilities. Like in the case of ultra-smooth junior forward Alyssa Bennett, the former Top-50 national high school recruit who shook off the rust of a two-year absence from competition last season. Bennett dropped a team-high 19 points on mighty Stanford last season despite often being matched against WNBA Rookie of the Year Nneka Ogwumike. Can Bennett display that kind of form from the jump this season?

"She's definitely capable," Six said.

Two years ago, guard Nicole Hamilton took the MEAC by storm, earning conference player-of-the-week honors twice in her first month as a Lady Pirate and scoring with ridiculous ease. After that, Hamilton produced in that manner, in part because Hampton didn't really need that kind of production from her to succeed. Now that they do, is Hamilton ready to deliver?

"I'll say this: she's capable," the coach repeated.

Then there's forward Keiara Avant, who was somewhat overlooked until star Melanie Warner went down late in the season. Avant started the Hampton's last seven MEAC games and was the conference's leading rebounder over that span. Is this what the Lady Pirates can expect from Avant all season?

(Altogether now) "She's capable."

In addition, senior guard Olivia Allen is a freak of an athlete, a college-caliber sprinter with a 36-inch vertical jump. We didn't have a roster at Friday night's festivities so we weren't sure which player was Allen. That is, until the team went up and down the floor a couple of times, and we pointed at the young lady wearing No. 24 and said, "That must be Allen."

Also, 6-6 junior college transfer Verdine Warner gives Hampton a size component it hasn't had in Six's previous three seasons, and freshman Ryan Jordan appears set to pay dividends quickly.

But just as in year's past, for all of this to work for Hampton, the littlest Lady Pirate will probably have the largest say.

It's hard to imagine Hampton with its All-American point guard Jenkins, in large part because Six never let us see what that looked like. A year ago, Jenkins averaged 38.5 minutes per game, the fifth-highest total in all of Division I.

Kenia Cole
No one player can be expected to replace Jenkins' ability, leadership skills and off-the-charts intangibles. But in Kenia Cole, a fresh-faced, enthusiastic 5-4 sophomore, Hampton has a player who can't wait for the opportunity to try.

"I feel like this is my team now," said Cole, who's first name is pronounced Ka-NEE-yuh.

Although Cole played sparingly for the Lady Pirates last season, she spent loads of practice time battling one-on-one with Jenkins. She knows what it's like to play with talented players, as at Maryland's Paint Branch High she shared a backcourt with Maryland sophomore Brene Moseley. And she's also familiar with filling in for a great player - she followed JMU star Tarik Hislop at Paint Branch.

It's tough to tell much from the type of shoot-and-giggle exhibition the Lady Pirates ran through Friday night. For what it's worth, Cole displayed excellent burst and a command of her squad. But can "Kee-boo" do this against the South Carolinas, the DePauls and, yes, the Howards on Hampton's schedule? Can she get her teammates involved while performing the low-turnover, high-IQ role Six requires of his lead guard?

Cole certainly seems to believe she can. But what about Six?

"I'll put it this way - she's capable."

We figured he'd say that. We also figure this - the track record of Six and his staff suggests that at Hampton, capabilities have a way of becoming probabilities and finally the reality of a successful season. So even with the injuries, this will be the expectation once again.

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