Broncos' New Coach Pushing Fresh Offense

Nov. 15, 2002

Michelle Smith
San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer

Santa Clara wants to have its proverbial cake and eat it, too. The Broncos' women's basketball program is prepared to embrace a big change this season, all the while hoping for more of the same.

First-year head coach Michelle Bento takes over for Chris Denker, who headed the Broncos for two seasons before taking the Colorado State job last spring. For Santa Clara's veteran players -- the Broncos have five seniors on the roster -- Bento is the third head coach in their college careers including Denker and Caren Horstmeyer, who left Santa Clara for Cal at the end of the 2000 season.

This is Bento's first head-coaching job. The Mountain View native worked the past four seasons as an assistant coach at Syracuse.

Bento inherits a program that needs more maintenance than rebuilding. The Broncos have reached the NCAA Tournament three of the past five seasons, have posted a winning record in the West Coast Conference in 12 consecutive seasons and have won at least 20 games in five consecutive campaigns.

Bento would like nothing better than to keep up that pace and perhaps pick it up a little as well. Santa Clara, picked to finish second in the WCC in the coaches' preseason poll, has advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament only once, in 1992.

The coach is hoping that a new up-tempo style, one that emphasizes transition scoring and high-pressure defense, will take the Broncos to new heights.

"I really want us to push the ball and play the kind of in-your-face defense that they are not used to doing," Bento said. "They've been very open to it and they are picking it up quickly."

Last year's team relied on the experienced backcourt of senior guards Becki Ashbaugh and Caroline Gruening. This year's team has most of its veteran players in the frontcourt, including returning starters Kendra Rhea and Julie Butler. The duo combined for 20.8 points and 12.7 rebounds a game last season. Senior Courtney Cushing is still recovering from an injury and is not yet game- ready.

Bento said she will do a lot of rotating among her perimeter players, sometimes playing in three-guard sets.

Replacing Ashbaugh and Gruening will be Quinn Thomas and Kayla Huss. Thomas is a sophomore who can play either guard position. The wing spot will be occupied by senior Tammy Annas. Annas averaged 10.9 points and 5.4 rebounds a game last season. Added to the mix is transfer Whitney Sutak, who sat out last season after coming from Utah and Julie Butler's younger sister, Kim.

In a fortuitous bit of timing, Bento got to begin the bonding process early,

taking the Broncos on a five-game European tour. It was a success on many fronts. The players and their new coaches got to know one another quickly from a personal perspective, and from the basketball perspective as well. Santa Clara posted a 5-0 record on the trip and Bento got a head start on installing her offensive and defensive schemes.

"I couldn't imagine just finding out about my players at the end of September," Bento said. "I believe we are much further along as a result."

Santa Clara opens the season with four games on the road, debuting at Lehigh on Nov. 22, before returning to the Leavey Center where the Broncos posted a perfect 12-0 record last season.