In other medical news, Virginia senior guard Jenny Boucek, a sports-medicine major, was present this summer for the rebirth of teammate Wendy Palmer's knee. "When I got the anesthesia and was going to sleep, Jenny was there," Palmer says. "The last thing I remember was squeezing her hand."
Palmer, a 6'2" senior forward and one of five returning starters from a 27-5 team, has played in pain—with pulled muscles, stress fractures and tendinitis—most of her career. It's amazing then that she needs only 137 rebounds (about 13 games' worth for her) to join Ralph Sampson as the only Virginia players to score 1,000 points and grab 1,000 boards. "One game last year, she had tendinitis, a severe case of the flu and an ulcer, and she scored 39 points," coach Debbie Ryan says. "When she puts her mind to something, you can't stop her."
Louisiana Tech guard Vickie Johnson is a prime example of the unforeseen spoils that accrue to a team that makes the Final Four. She still remembers watching TV in the early 1980s and seeing former Lady Techster guard Kim Mulkey, now a Louisiana Tech assistant, play in four straight Final Fours and win two national titles. "I didn't even know where Louisiana Tech was," says Johnson, who is from nearby Coushatta, La. "But I wanted to go there."
An All-America who has led the team in scoring since she was a freshman, the 5'9" Johnson averaged 16.4 points last season and has excellent range. However, the inside play of 6'4" senior Racquel Spurlock may be the key to the Lady Techsters' season. She'll get help from 6'3" freshman Priya Gilmore, the daughter of former NBA star Artis Gilmore.
Tennessee rarely dips out of the Top 5 in the preseason, but when that happens, there's usually cause for celebration in Knoxville. The last two times the Lady Vols started the season ranked lower than fifth (in 1986-87 and '90-91), they won national championships. "There aren't a lot of high expectations of us this year," says senior guard Michelle Marciniak, "so we're in the prove-people-wrong mode."
Marciniak and her backcourt mate, Latina Davis, are the only seniors on the team, which has five new players. That makes for some interesting workouts. "The first day of practice we looked like a veteran team," coach Pat Summitt says. "The second day of practice we looked like the youngest team I've ever coached."
Freshman Chamique Holdsclaw is battling to start at the small forward spot vacated by the graduation of All-America Nikki McCray. Like McCray, the 6'2" Holdsclaw wears number 23, but not in honor of a basketball deity. Holdsclaw, the top recruit in the country, wears the number to represent her favorite passage in the Bible, the 23rd Psalm.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has taken a year off to prepare the U.S. Olympic team for the '96 Games. Serving as co-head coaches in her stead are Amy Tucker, a 13-year assistant to VanDerveer, and Marianne Stanley, the former coach at Southern Cal. "Everything is going smoothly," says 6'2" forward Kate Starbird, a junior who led the Cardinal in scoring last year with a 16.0 average. "It's the same system, same plays."
Junior point guard Jamila Wideman, finally free of the foot pain she suffered throughout 1994-95, is the only other returning starter, but Stanford has lots of experience, with 11 lettermen coming back. The team has no rookies except the coaches, who are filling VanDerveer's shoes but not her desk. "We go in her office only to drop off mail or edit film," Stanley says. "Nobody is going to be sitting in her chair."
Penn State coach Rene Portland regularly sits in a swivel chair in a TV studio, a common spot for men's coaches but a place not many women's coaches find themselves. Center Court with Rene Portland, a monthly highlight show heading into its second season, was nominated for a regional Emmy last year, not bad for a rookie. "It's great having something like that for Penn State and women's basketball," says senior guard Katina Mack. "I never miss it."