- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2009

Alana Beard is entering her sixth season with the Washington Mystics. That means, above all else, she has witnessed the team’s coaching carousel, the kind of turmoil under which no franchise can thrive.

On the surface, 2009 is no different for the Mystics: another season, another coaching staff. But as Washington’s franchise player went through training camp this year, there was a skip in her step and a smile on her face that couldn’t be found during last year’s 10-24 campaign.

“It feels different,” she said. “Just walking in, the energy around this arena is unbelievable, starting from the coaches. We have a staff that’s communicating with everyone, from the top down to the players, and we’ve brought in players that will complement the players we already have.”

The cornerstones of the latest attempt to revive the Mystics - general manager Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank - worked this offseason to redefine the franchise’s image. Taylor upgraded the roster by adding guards Lindsey Harding and Matee Ajavon, both former first-round picks, and a then selecting former Maryland star Marissa Coleman with the second pick in April’s draft.

In doing so, Taylor followed through on her first order of business: establishing a championship mentality on the roster.

“It first begins with changing the culture,” Taylor said. “In order to win, you have to believe

you can win. We want to instill that, so we’ve surrounded ourselves with players that have come from winning programs. We have a lot of players who went to places because they want to win and play at the highest level and that are craving a chance to win.”

Plank was widely viewed as the best assistant in the WNBA before Washington hired her in November. She and Taylor worked together in Minnesota and are in sync in how they want to rebuild the franchise.

Whether it be reorganizing the locker room or conducting two-a-day practices, Plank has made her impact felt from the first day of training camp. Her demanding style, emphasis on conditioning and defense-first philosophy have been embraced by a group looking to get Washington back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

“I think a lot of people overlook the little things, but that’s what wins championships,” Taylor said. “Julie is meticulous in her preparation. These kids are going to be prepared, they are going to be in great shape, they are going to be diligent on the defensive end, they are going to do all the little things it takes to win ballgames. Last year, we were weak in the fourth quarter… and you’ll see that this year we aren’t going to let that happen.”

The players have bought into the new philosophy and are anticipating improvement this season. Their biggest hindrance had been a lack of communication between the front office and players. And every time a coaching change was made, it further slowed their progress. Instead of focusing on improvement, the Mystics spent most of their time learning new systems and adjusting to constantly changing demands.

Those days appear to be over. Perhaps the most important of Taylor’s dealings this offseason was reacquiring Chasity Melvin, who solidifies Washington’s frontcourt and will provide a veteran voice in the locker room.

But persuading Melvin to come back wasn’t easy. Signing with the Mystics was the last thing on her mind when Taylor first called, but in the span of several conversations Taylor convinced the 10-year veteran that things were changing for the better.

“I like their goals and their vision for the team,” Melvin said. “They sold it on me, and I had those goals when I was here [from 2004 to 2007], and I feel like I have unfinished business.

“I sense more of a consistency of everybody on the same page, from the top level down. Everybody knows the common goal. I think that’s automatically going to help us have a much improved season because everybody knows what we want to accomplish.”

That, of course, is bringing Washington its first WNBA championship. The Mystics have searched for a group who will turn them into a winning franchise. In Plank and Taylor, they think they’ve finally found the answer.

“I think Angela and I have the same philosophy; as the GM and coach, we want to do it the same way,” Plank said. “We brought in a staff that believes in what we’re doing, and I think that’s very important. We’re going to be around for a while.”

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