Fresh jams

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Fresh jams

Aaron Viner Courier staff

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After watching their team finish the 2010-11 season on a sour note, losing eight of their last nine games, Leatherneck women’s basketball fans were ready for a whole new arrangement this year.

Enter J. D. Gravina, who already has the Western Illinois team dribbling to a whole new beat.

The new Leathernecks head coach will attempt to orchestrate a new winning tradition at Western this season, and so far, Gravina and his team seem to be in perfect harmony.

“It’s a great experience,” Gravina said. “It has been really fun, and I’ve really gotten to know the team. I think we’ve really started to gel the last week and a half and really started to get along, started to figure each other out.”

After just one week, Gravina said he could already tell the team was making significant improvement.

“We’ve improved a ton,” said Gravina, who compiled a 93-28 mark at Quincy University and took the Hawks to the NCAA Div. II tournament three times.

“Offensively, being able to relax and (just) play has (helped us) come a really long way. We are shooting the ball better in our shooting drills, and that’s going to be important because we are going to be a little undersized. And, we’ve improved defensively, playing better off the ball and being more aggressive on the ball.”

Western opens regular-season play next Friday Nov. 11, hosting Hannibal-LaGrange College.

A possible starting five for the Leathernecks, based on the team’s lineup in Wednesday’s exhibition game, includes seniors Sadie Webb and Valencia Kelly and junior Saule Kontautaite at guard, along with junior Michele Salvatori and senior Brittany Demery at forward.

“Sadie Webb is probably going to be one of our leaders offensively,” Gravina said. “She was the newcomer of the year in the league last year and is real crafty with the ball.

“Michele Salvatori. I think, is going to have a breakout year. She shoots it well from (3-point range), and she attacks the basket. She’s our leading rebounder so far in practice.”

Webb averaged 12 points per game last season, while Salvatori averaged 7.7 points.

“Saule Kontautaite shoots the ball really well,” Gravina said, “and is coming back after an ACL tear from last year, so it’s nice to have her back. She knows the game and is a good passer. Valencia Kelly will be our defensive leader. She kind of gets our intensity going from the point guard spot.”

Demery returns after averaging 5 points and 4 rebounds per game last season.

Joining the team this year are freshmen Martyna Kudziela, from Brisbane, Australia, and Lindsay Carroll, a graduate of Rockton Hononegah High School in Roscoe, Ill., along with juniors Karis Phillips, who averaged 13.7 points per game at North Dakota College of Sciences, and Laura Atkinson, a former goalkeeper for the Leathernecks soccer team.

Following the season opener against Hannibal-LaGrange, the team will go on the road for three straight games against Vanderbilt (Nov. 14), Northern Illinois (Nov. 16) and Valparaiso (Nov. 22).

“I’m looking forward to (all the games),” Gravina said, “I think every game for us is going to be a challenge. We’ve got to have that attitude that we are going to have to battle every game.

“We have some marquee games; I think the Vanderbilt and Iowa (Dec. 9) games will be a really neat environment for our players, and I’m really excited for the Wisconsin-Milwaukee game (Nov. 26) at home. I think that should be a good game.”

According to the Summit League preseason coaches’ poll, the Leathernecks were picked to finish 10th out of 10 teams this season, but that isn’t something that Gravina is concerned about.

“We got picked last in the league, and obviously, we want to improve on that,” he said. “We are focused on the process right now, not the outcome. We are focused on what we can control, and we’ll see how it goes.”

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