- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

They’re young, loaded and primed for a championship.The Washington Mystics opened their sixth training camp yesterday full of optimism that this may be their year. Nearly everyone except retired Vicky Bullett returns from the team that reached the WNBA Eastern Conference finals last season.The Mystics finished 17-15 in the regular season before losing to New York in three games in the playoffs. Now they believe the next step in a logical progression is to win the East, and with a healthy Chamique Holdsclaw, there is no reason to think this team can’t.”I think we can go into this [season] knowing that we’re on the right course,” said coach Marianne Stanley, the 2002 WNBA coach of the year. “Everybody looks like they are in good shape. I think there’s a great mentality, a positive mentality like we had a year ago, and we want to keep that going. I think having the opportunity to be in the playoffs and to advance really gave us a confidence level coming into this season that’s going to do nothing but help us.”With the opener just three weeks away (May 23 in Charlotte) and their first three games on the road, the Mystics will find out about themselves quickly.Holdsclaw, who missed 12 games last season with a severe high ankle sprain but led the WNBA in scoring (19.9) and rebounding (11.6), is set for another outstanding year.Guard Stacey Dales-Schuman (9.8 points, 39.4 percent shooting on 3-pointers) and forward Asjha Jones (6.5 points), the Mystics’ prized rookies from last season, are poised to take the next step from good players to stars. The same goes for third-year shooting guard Coco Miller (9.3 points), who tied Holdsclaw with 17 double-figure scoring games last season and was named the WNBA’s most improved player.Point guards Annie Burgess (4.8 points, 3.6 assists) and Kiesha Brown return after solid seasons. Reserves Helen Luz (5.7 points), Murriel Page (6.5 points) and Tonya Washington (2.9 points) all can score off the bench. The acquisition of 6-foot-5 center Jenny Mowe from the defunct Portland Fire in the dispersal draft and first-round draft pick Aiysha Smith, a 6-2 forward from LSU, makes the Mystics’ nine-player core even better. Everything seems in place.”It is — we’re ready to go,” Dales-Schuman said. “It’s going to be exciting. We’ve got some great fresh faces coming into the program with some incredible veteran faces coming back. That’s going to be huge.”The WNBA’s recently resolved labor impasse with the players union pushed back the start of training camp four days, but that shouldn’t affect the Mystics much. Most players already know the playbooks and one another.One key loss the Mystics will have to overcome is the retirement of forward/center Bullett. The former Maryland star brought an unparalleled professionalism, work ethic and penchant for making big shots at the end of tight games.This is where Mowe enters the Mystics’ equation. She gives them legitimate post size and a defensive interior presence — something the team has never had. For the past two seasons, Mowe sat on the bench behind Fire starting center Sylvia Crawley, appearing in just 10 games. While playing in China this offseason, Mowe dropped nearly 20 pounds to get to 218 while averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds.”Here we can say, ‘OK, if you put your 6-foot-5 center who is going to pound it on the low block in there, so can we,’ ” Stanley said.Said Holdsclaw: “We’ve needed somebody who can get inside and move people around. Vicky departed us, so that’s five or six more boards that we’re going to need someone to make up.”With roster sizes this season allowing for 11 active players and two on the injured list, the Mystics’ training camp should offer spirited competition and ultimately make the team better for the upcoming season.Burgess and Jones are playing overseas and won’t arrive until the middle of the month. Burgess will have about a week to grasp the Mystics’ plays before the season starts. That shouldn’t be a problem because she ran the same offense last season.”We’re about winning. We want to be a champion,” Stanley said. “We got a little taste last year. We’re hungry now. That makes us hungrier and hungrier for the real thing. We got close, but coming close isn’t going to satisfy the appetite.”

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