JMU women welcome new stars

HARRISONBURG –The more things change, the more they stay the same.

James Madison University’s women’s basketball team lost two big keys to their successful 29-6 season — Kirby Burkholder and Nikki Newman. If JMU fans have learned anything over the years, it’s to not worry too much when losing star players.

“We’ve been able to follow our success with even more success sometimes,” JMU coach Kenny Brooks said. “The trend started when we lost Meredith Alexis and those guys and I panicked. I didn’t know what we were going to do, and very calmly Tamera [Young] stepped up and became a star. And we lost Tamera, I’m thinking ‘what are we going to do?’ Dawn [Evans] stepped up and became a star. We lose Dawn and everybody thought the world was going to end, and Tarik [Hislop] stepped in very nicely and Kirby followed her. And now it’s just a new chapter.”

The big question is who will be the new star or stars to emerge for the Dukes this season?

Brooks said he thinks the team has several players capable of rising to the challenge.

“It’s [time] for Precious Hall to step up. Toia Giggetts, Jazmon Gwathmey, Lady [Lauren] Okafor, all those guys, and they’re very eager,” Brooks said. “They’ve very patiently waited last year, playing in the shadows of a Nikki and a Kirby. Now they’re very eager to show what they can do in very prominent roles and they’ve done very well so far. I’m very proud of them.”

The 5-foot-8 junior guard Hall averaged 13.5 points per game, while senior forward Giggetts (13.2) and junior guard Gwathmey (10.0) were right behind her. Brooks said the 6-foot-3 center Okafor lost 30 pounds in the offseason and they are expecting big things from her this season.

Brooks said he also is expecting big things from junior point guard Angela Mickens, who averaged 4.0 assists last year off the bench.

The Dukes, who won an NCAA Tournament game last year, open their season Friday when they host No. 23 UCLA at the Convocation Center.

Adding to JMU’s strong nucleus will be freshmen Hailee Barron and Carley Brew. The Dukes will also have St. John’s transfer junior guard Ashley Perez after the first of the year.

Brooks said he was impressed with the play of Barron and Brew in a scrimmage on Sunday.

“I was very pleased, especially our two freshmen, I thought they both stepped up [Sunday] and did exactly what we recruited them to do. Hailee Barron, I think, hit four 3s in the game. She had struggled a little bit in the preseason and trying to shoot at this level with this speed, but found a rhythm yesterday. I was very happy for her. Carley Brew, she’s just like that Tasmanian devil, and she just goes wild and goes after the ball. She had seven points, 11 rebounds. She is exactly what we expected when we recruited her.”

JMU will certainly be tested by UCLA, who has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. Brooks said he believes the Bruins’ five freshmen were all ranked in the top 30 coming out of high school.

Brooks said that they had to try to find film of the freshmen from their high school games to get an idea of what to expect. Brooks said that one positive of opening with a top 25 team is he knows his players will be ready.

“It’s not like you’re opening up against a lesser opponent where the kids aren’t going to be excited,” Brooks said. “Not only the excitement of a new season, but also we’re playing against a top 25 team at the Convocation Center. So it’s been real easy to motivate them. If they haven’t been working well in practice, it’s real easy to say that if you don’t play well UCLA is going to come in here and beat you. As opposed to if it was someone who they thought they were going to beat they’ll be like ‘yeah, right coach.'”

The Dukes have a very tough schedule ahead of them, which includes St. Bonaventure, Pittsburgh and Maryland in the first five contests.

Brooks said he isn’t worried about the outcome of the games early in the season. He just wants his players to get better and to keep improving as a team.

“We’re trying to find our own identity away from what last year’s team was,” Brooks said. “Once we get that down pat, we’re probably going to have to reinvent ourselves again because we get a young lady that’s going to be eligible in Ashley Perez, who I think’s going to be a really big part of what we do going forward. …We’re going to try and get better each and every game and hope that results in wins. We’re not just going to just base it on wins and losses, especially early on because I think we can be a special team before it’s all over.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or