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Like many children, Penny Toler used to feel unrelated to the image she saw in the mirror. But she didn't try to get comfortable with her reflection by slyly sneaking up on it. Instead, she squared up and tried to give her mirror image a case of whiplash. "I got a basketball and threw down every crazy dribble and move a seven-year-old could think of," says Toler, Long Beach State's All-America guard. "I wanted to see if I could fake my reflection out, because then I knew I would be able to fake out anybody."
These days Toler can lose any woman in college basketball in the open court. That includes 49er coach Joan Bonvicini, a former star guard at Southern Connecticut State who challenged Toler to a game of one-on-one in 1986, soon after Toler enrolled at Long Beach after transferring from San Diego State. The outcome was never in doubt. When Toler, now a 5'8" senior, is whirling coast-to-coast, smoothly taking the ball between her legs and behind her back, defenders go limp and spectators go wild. The only question is whether Toler will go straight to the hole or settle for the easiest eight-footer this side of Michael Jordan. "Penny is the most explosive guard in women's basketball, just awesome in the transition game," says Leon Barmore, coach of perennial women's power Louisiana Tech. "There just isn't anyone else in our game with her skills."
In her two seasons since coming to Long Beach, Toler has led the 49ers to a 61-9 record and two trips to the Final Four. Last season she averaged 22.5 points and 5.3 assists a game while shooting better than 50%. More important, Toler's star quality will draw attention to the neglected women's game. Her gap-toothed smile projects a joyful toughness, and her natural playfulness makes her a crowd favorite. Last season during a game against San Diego State in which the Aztec bench was taunting her with chants of "Hot Dog," Toler answered by turning a steal into a flashy layup and yelling, "There's your mustard!"
"The only way to guard me is to ignore the fakes," says Toler with typical cockiness. "Of course, if you are only human, you'll look at all of them."
More and more humans are taking notice. At an awards banquet at the end of last season, none other than Danny Manning told Bonvicini that Toler was his favorite player. For her part, Toler would like to follow Manning's example and lead her team to the national championship this season.
With Toler showing the way, the 49ers' relentless style produced an average winning margin of nearly 23 points last season. As if that record weren't intimidating enough, Long Beach regularly brought its own bass-blasting boom box to layup drills and broke the pre-tip-off huddle with the chant, "One, two, three, kick ass!" More often than not, the 49ers did just that. "Sometimes when we are way ahead, a player on the other team will come up all out of breath and say, 'Come on, stop playing so hard,' " says Toler. "I'd just tell her, 'Hey, no mercy for you. Save that stuff for Mother Teresa.' "
Bonvicini denies that she has any intent to run up the score, contending that her only goal is to produce 40 minutes of quality, up-tempo basketball. "I've heard people say that watching women's basketball is like watching midgets wrestle," she says. "I don't want that said about my teams."
Bonvicini needn't worry about hearing such barbs, at least not as long as Toler is around. Toler, who was born and reared in Washington, D.C., learned the game on the same playgrounds that spawned such recent stars as Len Bias, Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker. Her nickname (her real name is Virginia) was given to her by her paternal grandmother because of Toler's childhood habit of carrying pennies in her mouth. "I stopped after I got a few stuck in my throat," she says. As her liking for pennies diminished, her passion for basketball grew stronger, and soon her daily routine included practicing her dribbling in front of a mirror in the basement of her family's house and following her three older brothers to the playground.
"Each of my brothers added to my game," says Toler. "Butch taught me ball handling, and Calvin would help me analyze opponents. As for William, his attitude when we played against each other was basically, 'I'm going to kill you.' That might have been the best lesson of all."
By early adolescence Toler had become the First Lady of D.C. hoops. "Everyone was watching me, so I knew I must be good," she says. "They'd see me dribble and yell, 'Ooohh, home girl can handle.' "