Sherri Coale is entering her twenty-fourth season as head coach of Oklahoma.
Last season, her Sooners missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. But the way Coale responded — replacing two of her assistant coaches and bringing in three high-caliber recruits — is why this season is one of the most anticipated in recent memory.
Here are three takeaways from their first practice of the season Monday:
Coale has made all the necessary changes to put Oklahoma back into the national conversation, but as far as the players are concerned, nothing has been earned yet.
"It’s time for redemption is what it is," says sophomore Madi Williams. "Gotta get back in the conversation. I feel like, after last year, nobody is really worried about us and we feel like that’s disrespectful to us, so we’re gonna use this year as redemption.”
Redemption for the Sooners ultimately starts where they fell short a season ago, in the form of a berth in the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season, going 8-22 on the season with just four conference wins.
“We’re all using that as motivation," says Williams. "We kinda forgot about it. At the same time it’s like we don’t want to experience that again, we don’t want to remember it, but we also don’t want another season like that. We’re trying to make it at least to the sweet sixteen or elite eight this year, if not the championship. I think that just using that as motivation is really good for us.”
But the big dance is not the only prize on the Oklahoma's mind.
“Our first goal is to win the (preseason) WNIT, second goal is to win the Big 12, and then the third goal is to make it to the NCAA and then the championship," Williams said. "I’m really confident in this group right here.”
Oklahoma has made strides as a team this summer, and the expectations show that.
Four Sooners get a jumpstart to the season
Oklahoma's season is still over a month away, but four players have already gotten a chance to compete. Junior Mandy Simpson, sophomores Taylor Robertson and Williams and freshman Gabby Gregory won the 3x3 South Regional in Atlanta, Ga.
They won a qualifying tournament in San Antonio, Texas, before rolling through the South Regional two weekends ago. With the victory, the Sooners clinched a berth in the 3x3 Nationals in the Spring.
“3x3 was really cool," said Williams. "It felt like AAU all over again. I think that’s what we most enjoyed about high school basketball so just being able to experience that again, and also having the chance to represent our country is just a really cool deal.”
Williams also relished in the opportunity to build valuable chemistry with her teammates.
“I think that the four of us that went, we got a chance to play a lot with each other," Williams said, "and I think whenever we have a chance to be on the floor together, it’ll help our chemistry out way more.”
She's not the only one who's noticed a difference.
"What I’ve seen is the way they came back home after they won," said Coale. "They expect to win. I think they recognize that they’re pretty good one-on-one players. They know how to read their defender, they know how to play together. They developed good chemistry too, those four did. But the main takeaway is the confidence that comes from being successful.”
Freshmen no more
It's no coincidence that last season's team was one of Coale's youngest. The Sooners paid the price for that last season, but they're already starting to reap the benefits.
This year's squad features six sophomores, Jessi Murcer, Nydia Lampkin, Aspen Williston and Tatum Veitenheimer along with Robertson and Williams. That makes six players who weathered the storm of a difficult freshman year and took major steps forward over the offseason.
"Our guys are just older this year," said Coale. "That’s what we’re getting to experience right now is some of that clarity from those six guys that are now sophomores. Nothing feels as hard. And they’ll say that. They did the hard part, now they’re getting on their feet and using the stuff they’ve learned.”
And the most important lesson they have learned this past offseason is defense, says Coale.
"They understand that we have to defend," says Coale. "They get it, that guarding matters. That’s the biggest part of guarding, it doesn’t matter if you play this way or that way or whatever. They have to understand the value of it, and they have. We sat in our film room last week and talked about our goals for training camp and everything they spouted off to me had to do with defense. That’s a reflection that their mindset has shifted.”
Sooner fans will get a first look at Coale's 2019 squad on Nov. 8, when Oklahoma hosts Prairie View A&M in the first round of the Preseason WNIT.