- Associated Press - Friday, June 3, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Ticha Penicheiro looked around at the start of training camp for the Los Angeles Sparks and noticed a huge difference.

The 5-foot-11 playmaker was surrounded by a group of tall players.

"Everybody was just so big," Penicheiro said. "Sometimes we have some combinations on the court and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ We got people that can play different positions that can create a lot of different mismatches in games, so I’m excited about that."

The Sparks open the season at home against the Minnesota Lynx on Friday night in a game featuring the return of Los Angeles star Candace Parker and the debut of Lynx rookie Maya Moore, who led Connecticut to two NCAA championships.

With Parker healthy and the return of veterans including Penicheiro, DeLisha Milton-Jones and the league’s career scoring leader, Tina Thompson, the Sparks are hopeful they can contend for the team’s first WNBA championship since 2002.

The Sparks struggled through a disappointing year last season that was marred by season-ending injuries to Parker and guard Betty Lennox. Parker appeared in only 10 games before having shoulder surgery and Lennox, who is no longer with the team, played in 11 games before having knee surgery.

"Everything’s great, I feel good," Parker said. "We’re very excited for the season to start. There’s a lot of anticipation and we’re looking forward to a healthy, and great, season."

Sparks guard Noelle Quinn is glad to have Parker healthy.

"Candace attracts so much attention in the paint," she said. "She’s a tough guard because she can shoot 3s and gets to the basket so she makes it hard on defenders, but easy on us so we’ve just got to knock down open shots."

Despite the injuries and a 13-21 record in the regular season, the Sparks reached the playoffs and lost in the first round to eventual champion Seattle.

"I can’t even explain the down moments that we had and how we would just look at each other and be like, ‘What is wrong?" Milton-Jones said. "We found a way to conjure up some spirit in us and say, ‘We can’t go out like this. We’ve got to at least make the playoffs.’

"This year is about redemption, righting that wrong of last year."

The Sparks added more size by drafting 6-foot-4 center Jantel Lavender of Ohio State with the fifth overall pick and signing 6-2 forward Ebony Hoffman.

"I really do believe we are the biggest team in the league at every position," second-year coach Jennifer Gillom said. "We even have big guards this year, which is a great thing. Hopefully we can create a lot of mismatches."

Playing better defense and getting off to a good start are other areas Gillom stressed during training camp.

The Sparks allowed an average of 81.2 points while allowing teams to shoot 44.2 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range, while getting outrebounded by 4.5 per game.

The Sparks opened last season 3-11, but regrouped in July and August to earn a playoff berth.

"If we started out last season like we finished, just think of what we could’ve accomplished," Gillom said. "That’s why I put so much emphasis on developing that team chemistry right away. Our goal is to win a championship and it has to start at the beginning of the season."

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