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Familiar leader, new outlook
After seeing key injuries take down several players for stretches - including key recruit Ayla Brown for her entire first season - Peninsula's women Pirates have high hopes for the 2008-2009 season.
At the helm is a coach who knows something about high hopes. The last time Julie Stewart stepped on the Pirate gym floor as a Peninsula coach, she was cutting down the net as her team celebrated a North Division championship in 2005. After taking three years off, Stewart is back, succeeding two-year coach Tiffany Darling.
Since Stewart left, the Pirates are 19-29 in conference play, 34-43 overall with no appearances in the NWAACC tourney.
Stewart says she expects to turn that around.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think we could compete for a title," she said.
She'll have plenty of weapons at her disposal. Returning from last year's 11-14 squad is a crew of eight sophomores, three of them starters.
Sam Flett, the 5-foot 6-inch combo guard from Wellpinit, brings back her team-leading 13.8 points and 3.8 assists per game. She was second on last year's squad with 6.2 rebounds and 2.4 steals per contest.
Brittany Bridges was a force inside for last year's squad, hitting nearly half (48 percent) of her two-point tries and gathering a team-best 6.9 rebounds per game. She was second on the team with a 12.3 points-per-game average.
Controlling the point last season was frosh Brittany Yamane. Despite missing two games, the 5-foot 8-inch guard from Warden High School racked up more minutes (747) than any other Pirate. Peninsula's top free-throw shooter, Yamane scored 10.6 points and distributed three assists per game.
The Pirates also have key returning role players: Krystal Tolliver, a speedy guard; post Damarais Craig, shooting guard Tina Knight, guard Alyssa Greene and post Kaylee Baumstark.
But the Pirates' hopes may rest on the reconstructed knees of two players. Tolliver was a starter in five games and P.C.'s top sparkplug off the bench in 15 others in 2007-2008, but a sore knee hampered her energy all season long.
The soreness was the result of a bone fragment used to repair an injury from two years back, Tolliver said. A second repair job has the 5-foot 4-inch guard from Alaska feeling fine and ready to play.
"I couldn't play to my full potential (last year)," Tolliver said. "Coach is trying to get me to be more aggressive offensively."
A big help for Tolliver and other P.C. returnees could come from Ayla Brown, a 5-foot 8-inch guard from Wasilla, Alaska.
Before last season ever got started, Brown tore her anterior cruciate ligament, the same injury that took Tolliver down. As a prep star, Brown helped her team amass a 103-14 record in her four-year varsity career and helped Wasilla win 89 conference games in a row, four straight region titles and a 4A state title.
After sitting out all of last season as a red-shirt freshman, Brown is back on the court.
"She's at full strength," Stewart said. "She wears a brace but it's not necessary. She's a hard worker and ... gets after it defensively."
Stewart said she expects a lot of her players to contribute on the offensive end.
"The scoring will be balanced; we're going to have to have several players (score) in double digits."
The Pirates saw top steal collector Bethany Holt graduate and shooter Kathleen Wilson leave the team halfway through season's end. To replace them is a trio of recruits, two from Nevada and another from Alaska.
Renee Pedroza is a 5-foot 6-inch guard from Henderson, Nev. Fellow Nevadan Dena Houser, a 5-foot 8-inch guard from Boulder City, joins her in the recruiting class. Kimberly Delk is a 6-footer from Anchorage.
With just a couple of scrimmages before Peninsula's first real preseason action, Stewart and the Pirates are busy making the best out of each practice.
"I try to teach that everything they do is a win," Stewart said. "They have to be hungry. I tell them, 'This is your ESPN. This is your big time."
Tolliver said she expects big things from this team too.
"The sky is the limits," Tolliver says.
The Pirates hit the floor for the first time at the Clackamas Tournament Nov. 28-30 in east Portland, Ore. The Pirate women make their home debut Dec. 30 against Tacoma.
Peninsula was 7-3 at home but just 4-7 on the road and 0-4 on neutral courts last season.