Salukis come in under radar at Valley media day

By Gus Bode

ST. LOUIS – When it was time for SIU forward Katie Berwanger to take her turn at the interview table at the Missouri Valley Conference media day, she was nowhere to be found.

In fact, no representatives from the SIU women’s basketball team were in sight, forcing the moderator to replace the Saluki fifth-year senior with another player.

But as the next set of athletes began to approach the stage, Berwanger snuck onto the dais before anyone even realized she was there.

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Predicted to finish dead last in the preseason coaches’ poll, this is exactly what the Salukis hope to do this season – sneak up on the rest of their MVC counterparts.

“It gives us more room to climb,” Berwanger said of the 10th-place ranking. “I get pissed off, but I feel better about this team than I have about any other, so I’m really excited.

“I’m jumpy right now.”

With a new group of experienced assistant coaches injecting life into the Salukis, along with a group of eight talented newcomers, this season looks to be the start of a new era for SIU women’s basketball.

“This is the first time in my career that my whole staff has Division I coaching experience, so I think it is going to make a huge difference,” Opp said. “I think people will see the kind of talented kids we have this year, and hopefully people will be excited about it.”

Zareth Gray, Maureen Smith and Usha Gilmore round out the new coaching staff, with each bringing their own level of experience to the table.

Gray, who is in charge of the post players, played college ball at Michigan State and coached at Ball State, Eastern Illinois and Wichita State before joining the Dawgs.

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Smith, who played guard at Florida International, comes to SIU from Central Florida where she helped the Golden Knights improve from 9-20 to 19-11 in her first season. Smith also served as an assistant at Bradley prior to UCF.

Gilmore, a former Miss Basketball in South Carolina, spent the 2001-2002 season as a reserve guard for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever. She coached the last two seasons at Wagner College and earned plenty of coaching experience as an instructor at numerous camps, including the Nike All-American Camp in Indianapolis.

But the trio brings more to the table than just experience. The new assistants also bring a fresh, and fun, outlook to the Salukis this season.

“Coach Gilmore gets so excited that you would’ve thought we just won an Emmy when we do things right,” Berwanger said. “They are so intense, and they put so much work into it that we don’t want to disappoint them.”

This year’s squad will look to push the ball this season, and for the first time, the Salukis will have the depth to execute an up-tempo game.

“We have 16 kids on the roster, and there isn’t one of them that I can’t see playing,” Opp said.

With the exhibition opener Nov. 9 against St. Louis Goldstar, Opp is already beginning to look for a little luck from outside sources.

At the SIU Arena Monday, Opp superstitiously touched Saluki football head coach Jerry Kill and several of his players in hopes that a little bit of luck from their 8-0 season start will rub off on her squad.

“That should be good enough for 10 wins,” Opp said. “But 27 would be wonderful.”

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