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Future bright for next year

Heather VanHoegarden | Wednesday, March 31, 2004

When the final horn sounded Saturday afternoon at the Hartford Civic Center in Notre Dame’s 55-49 loss to Penn State in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, there were looks of disappointment across the faces of the Irish. But deep down, these women know the best is yet to come.”We’ve got a good returning group,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.The group McGraw refers to is headed by physical presence Crystal Erwin and defensive stopper Breona Gray. Adding to the mix is shooter Susie Powers, who saw limited action this season.”The freshmen will be the difference,” McGraw said. “Breona, Susie and Crystal all have a lot to contribute next season. They will all play a bigger role in what we are going to do.”The trio of freshmen will have to step up to replace the three seniors – Monique Hernandez, Jeneka Joyce and Le’Tania Severe. Each had her own role and excelled in it. Hernandez was in for defense, Joyce was the shooter and Severe was the scrappy hustler and slasher that the Irish counted on for a spark.But while McGraw tries to replace these players next year, they will also look for junior Jacqueline Batteast to come in with another season like this one.”Jackie was just really incredible this season,” McGraw said. “We’re really pleased with her.”Batteast’s outstanding season came after a disappointing sophomore year that ended with an even more disappointing postseason. But this year was a whole new year, and a whole new Batteast.She averaged 16 points and 8.6 rebounds a game, good for all-Big East first-team. Batteast was also named honorable mention All-American by the Associated Press, and was a finalist for the Kodak/WBCA All-American team as well as for the Naismith Award.During the NCAA tournament, Batteast upped her averages to 22 points and 11.7 rebounds, good enough to earn her a spot on the NCAA East Regional all-tournament team.”She feels really good about the way she played in the tournament,” McGraw said. “She proved why she is going to be one of the top five players in the nation next season.”Batteast will be joined next year by Big East Most Improved Player Megan Duffy, who averaged 9.9 points and 3.9 assists after taking over as the point guard this year. Duffy will lead a tournament-tested team, as the Irish have played in the Sweet 16 in consecutive years.Next season, Duffy will be joined in the backcourt by two new faces. Charel Allen, a 5-foot-10 guard from Monessen, Pa., and 5-foot-8 Tulyah Gaines from North Las Vegas, Nev. will vie for playing time next year.Allen scored more than 3,000 points in her high school career, and is highly touted as a driver and slasher.Meanwhile, the Irish also gain another post presence in 6-foot-5 Melissa D’Amico, a resident of Manorville, N.Y. She will take the title of the tallest member of the Irish team.D’Amico joins a corps that includes Courtney LaVere, Teresa Borton and Erwin. LaVere will only be a junior, while Borton will bring experience to the table as a senior. Erwin, named preseason Big East Freshman of the Year, has come along since the beginning of the season and should provide depth at the post position next year.But the bright future of this team can’t dim the lights of this season, despite the loss to Penn State in the same round as last year.So now the Irish take the loss and put it behind them. They have just two weeks off leading up to the Easter holiday April 9. After Easter, McGraw said the team will work out three days a week, including two hours of individual workouts.”I felt we achieved our potential,” McGraw said. “We played our best basketball at the end of the year. We lost to a No. 1 seeded team in a game that could have gone either way.”