The members of the University of Richmond women's basketball team are starting the season with chips on their shoulders - literally.
The team has shirts with the words "CHIPS 2 Champs" on the back. CHIPS - competitive, hardest working, invested, pride, sacrifice - is a theme the team started last season, and coach Michael Shafer said this year was Chips 2, like a sequel, but to do more.
"We want people to know that we're here and we want to earn respect," Shafer said. "They've come back with the same kind of mentality. ... It's just a matter of going out consistently - and that's the big word, consistently - earning respect from people around the league."
Last year, the team finished with a 24-10 record, the third-best record in program history. It played in the Atlantic 10 championship and earned a bye during the Women's National Invitational Tournament for the first time.
"A lot of people think that we achieved a lot, which we did," junior Brittani Shells said. "At the same time, we didn't really get what we really wanted to get. We got to the A-10 championship, yet we didn't win it, and we still did not get picked to get into the NCAA."
The team returns all five of its starters from last year, as well as two players - juniors Katie Holzer and Kara Powell - who have earned starts in the past but redshirted last year because of injuries. They're at full strength, Shafer said, but sophomore Rachael Bilney and junior Crystal Goring are still recovering from some nagging injuries. Sophomore Sam Bilney, who was recovering from an injury that caused her to miss the final 12 games of last season, suffered a knee injury during practice a couple of weeks ago and won't play at all this season.
"It is easy to feel sorry for ourselves because we lost an important teammate, but Sam absolutely will not allow us to do that," Shafer said. "She is a tremendous motivation and inspiration for us to continue to play with great effort every night.
"She was a big part of what we planned to do on both the offensive and defensive ends. Sam has great versatility and skill that she is able to contribute in so many ways. We will need different people to pick up for her abilities."
The team has had two closed scrimmages without Bilney, and Shafer said sophomore Joyous Tharrington was probably going to have to play guard as well as forward this season in order to help adjust to playing without Bilney. At the end of last week, Shafer still hadn't chosen the team's five starters.
"That's a positive statement," he said. "We've got kids that have improved from last year that will take on new roles. ... I really believe that there's going to be a lot of kids playing a lot of minutes."
The players are getting better at recognizing each other's strengths and weaknesses, and Shafer said the biggest difference this season had been the team's chemistry. Senior Danielle Bell said the team was also governing itself, staying focused on what it had to do while still having fun. Shafer said the players were more used to his expectations.
"When they walk out there in practice, you can see a difference," he said.
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"They're smiling - not that they didn't smile last year - but I don't have to get as upset. I don't have to try to push anymore because they know when to push."
Defense was one of the team's strengths last year -- it led the conference in steals. Shafer said the graduation of Johanna McKnight would hurt the team on defense, but he expected a much better offense this year. He also said he hoped to maintain the low number of turnovers the team had had last season, but improve its rebounding skills.
The team opens the season at 4 p.m. tomorrow against Western Carolina University, which played in the NCAA tournament last year. Shafer said it was hard to scout the team because it has a new coach and new players.
"We don't know what the opponents are going to bring," he said. "We've got to handle ourselves, control ourselves, more than we allow them to control us."
The game is the first in a doubleheader with the men's team, and Shafer said he was excited about the opportunity for fans to see both teams. He said Richmond's small campus allowed athletes to share in each other's success. On its way to a game at Marshall University last year, the team watched the Richmond football team win the national championship.
"We got out the next day and it was the best game we've played all year," Shafer said. "I can't help but attribute it back to the fact that the kids were excited to see Richmond, in whatever sport, have ultimate success and win a national championship."
The women's basketball national champions, the University of Connecticut, will host Richmond on Nov. 28. Bell said she was excited to see how the teams matched up in comparison with her freshman year, when Connecticut won 84-50.
"This summer we focused on getting bigger and stronger so that we'd be able to play against them," Bell said. "Playing Georgetown [University] last year at the end of the year we got pushed around a lot."
Shafer also mentioned Georgetown, Wake Forest University, Clemson University, Hofstra University and Drexel University as some of the better teams on Richmond's schedule.
"It's a challenge but I think competitors like a challenge," he said. "I don't think they want to play games where they're winning by 40. I think they want to be in challenging situations and we certainly have that this year."
In the preseason A-10 poll, Richmond was tied for third with Dayton University. Xavier University was picked first and the University of North Carolina at
Charlotte was picked second. Shells said the team had lost to teams it expected to beat last year, and that inconsistency was part of the reason many people still underestimated Richmond.
"It seems like they have amnesia and they forgot about [last season]," Shells said. "Some people just don't care. They already have in mind those top teams, Dayton or Xavier or Charlotte ... That's exactly what makes us keep playing hard."
Richmond has already gotten some national recognition, earning two votes in the Nov. 4 USA Today/ESPN Women's Basketball Coaches Poll, but Shafer said the team had to understand that last year's success, and this year's anticipated success, didn't mean anything yet.
"Dealing with those expectations and those thoughts is the big obstacle, because you can't just sit back and say we're going to be good because we had a successful year," he said. "The year's different and now you're the hunted instead of going out there as an unknown."
Contact staff writer Barrett Neale at firstname.lastname@example.org
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