- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

Julie Plank didn’t like what she saw during a shooting drill at a recent Washington Mystics practice.

Near the end of the three-hour session, some of the Mystics players went through the exercise at half-speed. So the first-year coach halted the drill, picked up a ball and demonstrated - at full speed - the way she wanted it run.

It was a shining example of the fresh attitude and renewed work ethic Plank brings that has helped Washington get off to the best start in franchise history.

“She’s a hard worker, she prepares like no one else, she has a great understanding for the WNBA game, and I think she is probably one of the best teachers of the game that I have been around,” general manager Angela Taylor said. “Every day in practice I go watch her teach, and I’m amazed that she has the ability to assess every single detail on every play, both good and bad, and communicate that with the players in a way that they’ll be receptive to it.”

The Mystics hired Plank in November to spearhead their rebuilding effort after last year’s 11-24 campaign, which made both coach Tree Rollins and general manager Linda Hargrove casualties. As an assistant, she contributed to similar projects both at Stanford alongside Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer and with the Indiana Fever earlier this decade.

After getting to know the Mystics players via various forms of electronic communication while they played overseas in the offseason, Plank wasn’t bashful about making a first impression during training camp. She held two-a-day practice sessions the first couple of days of camp, during which the Mystics became familiar with her demanding, no-nonsense style.

“The thing that gives me a lot of confidence is that I’ve always been in great places where there have been high expectations, it’s high pressure and it’s a very demanding situation,” said Plank, who was on the coaching staff of the U.S. Women’s National Team for the 2000 Olympics. “I’ve worked for the best coaches in the game and so I’ve learned a lot. Also I’ve had the opportunity to always coach great players, so it’s not intimidating to come in and coach an Alana [Beard] or a Lindsey Harding because I’ve coached Olympians and I’ve coached All-Star WNBA players. So that’s been an easy adjustment.”

But before she could install her up-tempo system, Plank sought to establish a rapport with her players. That turned out to be her easiest task of all.

With five new players in addition to the new coaching staff, the Mystics forged a team identity during the two weeks of training camp. The result was a close-knit group who embraced the long hours in the gym and the goal of improving every day.

“When you’ve been around basketball for a long time, you can sense when players completely trust the coach and the coaching staff,” Taylor said. “I think she has proven to them that she is here for the right reasons and if they do listen to what she’s asking them to do, good things can happen. There’s no doubt in my mind that from Alana down to Marissa [Coleman] and some of the newer players, they have the utmost confidence in Julie.”

The communication and trust among front office, coach and players had been the key missing element in Washington. With everyone now on the same page, those inside the Mystics organization aren’t surprised by the team’s 4-1 start.

Plank’s enthusiasm has seemed to rejuvenate the franchise. Practices are more lively, the locker room is more chipper and the everyday grind of the season has become more enjoyable. Hungry to get Washington back into the playoffs for the first time since 2006, the players have welcomes each of Plank’s challenges.

“All the time that I either coached her or worked with her, the No. 1 thing was that she loved the game of basketball. She is really passionate about the game, and she has a lot of energy,” said VanDerveer, who coached Plank for three years at Ohio State before working with her at Stanford for 10 more. “She’s been around the game all her life, and she just makes basketball fun for people. I think that’s probably a big reason why they’ve been successful so far is that players like to play for her.”

It’s not just the players who have enjoyed the first two months of the Plank regime. The coach said she enjoys every aspect of working in the District, from her scenic drive to Verizon Center each morning to her interactions with Washington’s dedicated fan base.

“It’s very rewarding to play in front of a great crowd,” Plank said. “I moved here in January, and I have not yet met one person who doesn’t know who the Mystics are. That’s been totally new to me. I’ve been in Indiana, I’ve been in Minnesota, and some people know who the team is [but not everyone]. Just the support is incredible, and I think Washington would be a great place to win a championship.”

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