Driving cautiously from my home to the UTSA campus one morning last week, gray clouds hung low on the horizon as I splashed through puddles on the road during the first substantial downpour in San Antonio in several months.
Surprisingly enough, when I finally reached my destination at UTSA women’s basketball practice, the precipitation continued. As soon as a spirited five-on-five session began, different players started to rain shots from all over the place.
Not all of them splashed through the nets.
But one of them, a three out of the corner, was hoisted decisively at the end of a transition play. It snapped the cords. More than a few mid-range jumpers rattled in. A big center displayed solid footwork in advance of banking in a couple from close range.
Granted, this was one practice. It was the one and only practice involving the UTSA women that I’ve seen in more than a year.
But Karen Aston acknowledged in a telephone interview on Friday that she, too, has detected a marked uptick in offensive potential since she revamped the roster for her second season as head coach.
“Definitely, I think we’re going to be able to put the ball in the basket a little more frequently than we could last year,” Aston said. “Again, last year’s team gave me (100 percent). I think we squeezed everything we could out of ‘em.
“I thought they were one of the most enjoyable teams I’ve ever coached. One of the most coachable teams I’ve ever (worked with), but we struggled to score the ball. This team will do that a little bit easier.”
Could it be that Aston’s rebuild of a historically downtrodden program is moving along at a faster pace than you might expect? Could it be that a drought of seven-straight seasons with losing records might be coming to an end?
It could be. As a team, the Roadrunners are decidedly bigger and more athletic than usual, and they also have more than a few players with offensive ability, which always helps. The coach has 14 players on her team, eight of them newcomers, including heralded Southern Cal transfer Jordyn Jenkins.
The other day, I noticed that Jenkins was hitting shots with regularity from 15 feet and in. Returning center Elyssa Coleman and wing player Queen Ulabo also looked as if they had been in the gym quite a bit this summer.
“Two things are going to help us be better,” Aston said. “The returners seem so much more comfortable right now in who they are and what we expect from them, as opposed to last year, (when) nobody knew. Also, the two kids from USC (Jenkins and Kyra White) are going to come in and give us some experience and maturity from playing at a high level.”
Jenkins, a power forward, and White, a wing player and a former a prep standout at Judson High School, should provide an instant boost to the Roadrunners.
Another local favorite could be Steele High School-ex Sidney Love, last year’s player of the year in the San Antonio area. Love leads a group of three promising freshmen point guards, which also includes Texan Madison Cockrell and Californian Siena Guttadauro.
“I think the biggest challenge for this group is the point guard situation,” Aston said. “We’ve got young kids. They’re talented, and I love how they compete. (But) they’re all freshmen with the exception of (senior) Deborah (Nwakamma) … They’re going to have their highs and lows.”
Last year, as Aston began the painstaking task of turning around a traditionally downtrodden program, the Roadrunners finished 7-23. They completed the Conference USA regular season at 3-14.
In doing so, they shot a frightful 33.2 percent from the field, which ranked last in the C-USA and 346th out of 348 teams nationally. Based on what I saw the other day, though, this team could be dramatically better on the offensive end.
It’ll all start with Jenkins, an athletic, 6-foot forward from Kent, Wash. Last year, she emerged as an all-Pac 12 Conference performer, while averaging 14.8 points and 6.7 rebounds for the Trojans.
Last week, I watched her score about five baskets in a very short period of time during five-on-five work.
“Jordyn Jenkins is really talented,” Aston said. “She can do a lot of things. She’s versatile at the forward position. And in my opinion, if she sticks this thing out, and does the things she’s capable of doing, I think she’s a pro. I think there’s potential (for her) to be a pro. No question about that.”
Returning players who have caught Aston’s eye in terms of individual improvement in their games have been Coleman, Ulabo, Nwakamma and Hailey Atwood.
“They just look so much more confident in themselves and what they’re doing,” Aston said. “Their skills are better. It’s hard for me to pick one of those returners because they’ve all improved a lot. A whole lot.”
How good can the team be?
“Obviously with eight new players it’s going to be a process,” Aston said. “I mean, it’s almost like it was last year, where chemistry will have to be built … Patience is going to be important for us.”