Loyola Marymount reloaded and ready to go

LOS ANGELES — The 2010-2011 season started out well for the Loyola Marymount Lions. They had four promising freshmen, a strong group of veterans, and a lot of energy. And in the first five games, star guard/forward Alex Cowling was the team’s high-scorer, with 31, 28 and 27 points, respectively, in the last three contests.

But in that sixth game, during a Thanksgiving weekend tournament at home, Cowling severely injured her foot. Just five days before she had become the fastest LMU player to reach 1,000 points, as a junior. The former West Coast Conference freshman of the year and all-conference team selection was lost for the season. Second-leading scorer Renahy Young was also out with an injury for several games.

Guard Candice Nichols stepped up, and threw down double-figure points every game. But at the beginning of February she tore her ACL, and she too was out for the year. The Lions lost that game, and six of their last seven afterwards. They finished 11-18 overall, and 5-9 in conference.

“The young players really stepped up, but it was too much,” head coach Julie Wilhoit said. “They were really tired by the end of the season.”

But as LMU readies for their season opener tonight at Denver, they are fully reloaded and ready to go: with new personnel, new offense and defense, new energy and a new attitude. Cowling explained the spirit, which was on display in a vigorous shoot-around before their final exhibition last Sunday.

“The attitude of the entire team is incredible,” she said. “Every single person is asking what they can do to help – they’re all bringing so much energy.”

Both Cowling and Nichols said that the five new freshmen are being especially aggressive.

“Everyone wants to step up,” Nichols said.

The newcomers include Danielle Pruitt, from View Park Prep in Los Angeles; Ashley Lovett, of Murrieta High School in Muruieta, Calif.; Taylor Anderson, from Bonita High School in La Verne, Calif; Taylor Sansbury, of Bishop Montgomery High School in Los Angeles; and Emily Ben-Jumbo, from Tualitin High School in Tualitin, Ore.

The last new player is a senior – Danielle LeNoir, who transferred from Washington State. She is the sister of former star USC point guard Camille LeNoir.

Lovett put up a team-high 13 rebounds and had nine points in the Lion’s exhibition win, against Cal Lutheran. Pruitt added 11 points.

Wilhoit was blunt, and said that this year’s freshmen are better at this time last year than the frosh of 2010-2011. But she added that this year’s sophomore class had grown exponentially since last season.

“In 25 years of coaching, I’ve never seen a class go through the transformation that this one has, from freshmen to sophomore year,” she said. “They’re very serious, and they took last year personally. They’ve matured.”

Those former freshmen – Hazel Ramirez, Alexis Love, Melinda Gomez and Mackenzie Kerins – took classes this past summer, trained with the team’s strength and conditioning coach, and played in a local league. Wilhoit said they are noticeably improved.

One member of that class was lost, however, in Camille Buckley. Last year’s WCC newcomer of the year, and LMU’s leading rebounder, left for UC Irvine.

Cowling has worked hard in rehabilitation, and seems to be back, as she posted 18 points and 10 rebounds in the exhibition. Nichols has not yet returned to the court, as she has had to have three surgeries since her original repair to remove scar tissue in her knee.

Wilhoit, associate head coach Lynn Flanagan and assistants Brian Rosario and Bianca Ziemann have implemented new offense and defensive systems, which Wilhoit said the team has received very well. She said it is very up-tempo which suits a squad that has only four upper-classwomen.

“This is about wanting to win,” Wilhoit said. “Our focus is on helping them to be a deep team.”

Despite the plethora of point guards this year, Wilhoit said she will stick with Ramirez, who made a name for herself and earned a starting spot last year. The new offense seems built for Ramirez, who likes to push the ball.

If the Lions stay healthy, Wilhoit’s goal could come true, because Cowling said the group has great chemistry.

“We really like each other,” she said. “We hang out, and we don’t plan it out in advance.”

LMU’s first home game is Monday, as they take on Cal State Northridge.

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