NORMAN, Okla. The University of Oklahoma's women's basketball team has become one of the finest programs in the nation and this season figures to be more of the same for head coach Sherri Coale's squad. OU has won two consecutive Big 12 Conference championships and appeared in back-to-back NCAA Sweet 16s. It has done so with a core group of stars, including seniors LaNeishea Caufield and Stacey Dales and junior Caton Hill. Caufield and Dales are considered one of the top backcourt duos in the country while Hill is seen as an emerging star for the Sooners at the post position.

Entering her sixth season at the helm of the program, Coale has never had a team with as much experience as this year's squad. The extensive experience of the upperclassmen is a key reason the Sooners are being consistently picked in the top five, even as high as number one, in various preseason publications. Coale has earned wide-ranging respect and has built a great reputation for the program in a short period of time. OU is sure to be adding another chapter to its success story in 2001-02.

"Each of the past three seasons have been a strong and steady progression toward a national championship," said Coale. The unquestioned leader of the team is senior point guard Stacey Dales. The Canadian import spent the majority of the summer in Norman working on her game daily and improving in the weight room. Dales was invited to participate on the Canadian Senior National team that played in a qualifying tournament for next year's Basketball Tournament of Champions in Brazil in September. That tournament was what this All-America player needed, as it rekindled her energy for the game and drive for a national championship.

Dales looks to repeat her Kodak All-America season, Big 12 Conference Player of the Year and All-Big 12 first-team honors. She is already being mentioned as a contender for the Margaret Wade Trophy and Naismith Award, given annually to the nation's best player. Dales, a 2000 Olympian, finished last year ranked eighth in the nation in assists with 7.3 apg and a Big 12 best 1.77 assist/turnover ratio. She has improved her assist/turnover ratio yearly and looks to be among the nation's elite in this category this season. She holds the Big 12 Conference record for assists per game and needs just 20 to break the Oklahoma all-time record for total assists. Dales is also OU's top returning scorer with 16.0 points per outing and the team's third best rebounder with 5.1 rpg. Dales is solid off the court as well as she was an Academic All-America second team and Academic All-Big 12 first team selection for the Sooners last year. She is a communication major and a two-time recipient of the Athletic Director's Leadership Award.

Dales will certainly be looked upon to lead the team this year and her play will be a major determining factor in the team's success. "Stacey has a gift of vision," said Coale. "She sees the floor better than any player in the country, and she has the uncanny ability to get players the ball in the right way, in the right place and at the right time. She is the type of player who makes everyone around her better and is a leader, both on and off the floor."

Caufield also headlines Oklahoma's list of returning starters and should join Dales in the backcourt. However, she will be pushed by others for playing time. Caufield looks to repeat her goal of leading the nation in total steals (135) and wants to improve upon her second-place finish in the NCAA in steals per game after an impressive 4.0 thefts per outing last year. At 5-9, she averaged just under 16 points per game and earned second team All-Big 12 honors last season. She missed the first team all-conference squad by just one vote, but made up for it by being selected the National Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive All-American by the Women's Basketball News Service and Women's Basketball Journal, respectively.

She continued to develop her game by playing on the Big 12 All-Stars European Tour in August. Caufield assisted the team to a perfect 5-0 record and finished the two-week trip ranked third on the team in scoring with 10.2 points per game. She also pocketed a team-best 3.6 steals per outing and shot an All-Star best 58.3 percent from beyond the arc (7 of-12).

She, of course, will be looked to as a defensive stopper, however her offensive talents will be crucial to the Sooners' attack. "LaNeishea is obviously known for her anticipatory skills on the defensive end," said Coale. "However, she also has the ability to get to the rim and finish in traffic. She continues to improve her perimeter shooting and will be an integral part of our collective offensive success this season."

Vying for the opportunity to join Dales and Caufield in the backcourt this season are senior Rosalind Ross, sophomore Stephanie Luce and freshman Dionnah Jackson.

Ross was a two-time junior college All-American at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M before transferring to OU. Upon her arrival, she began contributing immediately to the Sooners' success by averaging 8.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. Her main contribution came from beyond the arc where she nailed nearly 40 percent of her shots. Ross earned Big 12 All-Tournament Team honors after leading the Sooners in scoring with 14.3 points and shooting 50.0 (12-of-24) percent from beyond the three-point line in OU's three tournament games. She was also named the conference's Rookie of the Week after impressive performances against nationally ranked Iowa State and Texas in the first week of January, 2001.

"Rosalind is an exceptional athlete," said Coale. "While she's a solid ball handler and passer, her forte is shooting the basketball. Her work ethic in the off season has been exceptional and she continues to emerge as a leader on our team. She should be an integral part of our offense and a potential defensive stopper. It's fun to coach her because she loves to play and it's fun to coach kids who love to play. She's a great defender and she has an extraordinary feel for the game."

Another key to Oklahoma's success this season will be Luce, a 5-6 guard, who is among the strongest players on the team and is gifted with great speed and quick hands. Stephanie isn't very big but she makes up for her lack of size in other ways.

"Steph will be counted on to give us some of the fast break fundamentals Sunny (Hardeman) provided last season," said Coale. "She uses her strength very well and is an outstanding on ball defender. While her role at the point position will not be that of a scorer, Steph is capable of putting points on the board and is an excellent penetrator."

Looking to adjust quickly to the NCAA Division I level and OU's system is Jackson. Jackson brings to Oklahoma a very impressive high school resume which includes player of the year honors from the state of Missouri and two St. Louis American Fab-Five selections. The St. Louis native is already being compared to Niele Ivey, the gritty floor general who helped lead Notre Dame to the 2001 national championship. Jackson averaged 16.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 4.4 steals per game as a senior. She led her team to the state championship title game as a senior as well as won conference and district titles. Jackson's natural abilities and basketball instincts can't be taught and her extremely quick first step when driving to the basket will aid OU in its goal of a national championship.

"Dionnah could become a legitimate candidate for Big 12 Rookie of the Year and could be a very special player for us," said Coale of her prized freshman. "She has a chance to contribute immediately because her talent is accompanied by a conscientious work ethic and a strong fundamental base."

Making Oklahoma's backcourt even stronger are junior walk-ons Stephanie Simon and Kate Scott. Both are solid athletes with great attitudes and work ethics, and will add valuable depth to the guard positions.

Returning to fill her post position will be junior Caton Hill. Hill is a blossoming star and a returning force for Oklahoma. She was a second team All-Big 12 performer last season and was a part of the USA Women's Basketball team that brought home a gold medal from the World University Games that were played in Beijing, China, in September. She played in all eight games for the USA and averaged 5.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per game. For the Sooners a year ago, she nearly averaged a double-double with 13.0 ppg and 9.3 rpg. She is third on OU's all-time list with 20 double-doubles. At this rate, she will surpass the school record of 25, which was set by former Sooner standout Phylesha Whaley (1996-1999).

Hill led OU in its 2001 NCAA Tournament run with 17.7 ppg and 12.0 rpg, which earned her NCAA West Regional All-Tournament honors. Hill ended the tournament ranked among the top 12 in five categories including first in total rebounds (12.0) and defensive (7.0) boards plus, second in offensive rebounds (5.0), 10th in field goal percentage and 11th in scoring.

Hill epitomizes the toughness and determination required to win at this level, and her work ethic is unparalleled.

"When I think of Caton, the word tough is the first thing that comes to mind," said Coale. "She is extremely versatile as she plays inside and yet often leads the team in three-point shooting percentage. She is an individual who carries herself with confidence and as a result, is a leader on and off the court."

Senior Shannon Selmon also returns, giving Coale another viable option at the power forward spot. Selmon is not only a great student, earning her second Academic All-Big 12 honor last season, but has shown she can provide much needed support in the paint at both ends of the floor. "Shannon continues to be one of the hardest workers to come through this program," said Coale. "She is an outstanding leader who could play a significant role in the outcome of this season."

Oklahoma's center position will also play a vital role in the team's success this season. Currently it is being filled by seniors Jamie Talbert and Jennifer Cunningham. Both are expected to see plenty of playing time and contribute in a variety ways.

Talbert became a huge factor in Oklahoma's inside success last season. She finished with 7.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in her first season as a Sooner, but, once inserted into the starting lineup, she increased her numbers to 11.0 ppg and 7.5 rpg. Talbert has shown she is an offensive threat as she scored in double figures nine times, including five of the last nine games in 2001. She also averaged 6.5 rebounds per game in the Sooners' postseason action. Prior to playing at OU, she was a two-time junior college All-American at Seward County Junior College in Liberal, Kan.

"Jamie made such a tremendous contribution last year, especially when Jen went down in January," said Coale. "She continually wins battles against bigger, faster and more athletic post players. She's just a fabulous kid to coach."

The 6-3 Cunningham is coming off of her third ACL injury, this time to her right knee after twice injuring her left knee. She has, however, been cleared to return to full action and looks to pick up where she left off last January. In the six games immediately prior to her injury, she was averaging nearly 10 points and eight rebounds per game, and that type of contribution could go a long way in jump starting a run deep into the NCAA Tournament for Oklahoma.

"Jen has rehabbed very well." said Coale. "Her strength is good and her confidence is extraordinary, considering this was her third knee injury. She is such a difference maker for our team. She runs well, rebounds well and has an excellent shooting touch. She dominated the paint in the games before she went down last year and is as skilled as any center in our league."

Adding to the depth of an already experienced and talented Oklahoma team, Coale welcomes a talented trio of freshmen in Lauren Shoush of Oklahoma City, Lindsey Casey of Longview, Texas and Antoinette Wadsworth of Grand Prairie, Texas, as well as junior transfer Theresa Schuknecht to the mix. Coale has already seen a vast improvement in her newcomers since their arrival on campus in August. She fully expects each to quickly become acclimated to the OU system in order to contribute to the Sooner goals of a third straight Big 12 title and an NCAA crown.

For OU to successfully meet these goals, the Sooners will face a daunting schedule in 2002, including games against 12 teams that participated in postseason action and five teams that advanced to at least the NCAA Sweet 16. The season opener will be against last year's national runner-up, Purdue, in the State Farm Tip-Off Classic, and Illinois is slated to visit Norman on Dec. 16 for the Big 12/Big 10 Challenge. If that isn't enough, OU will travel to Storrs, Conn., to face perennial national power Connecticut. These three games are slated for national television coverage on either ESPN or ESPN2.

The Sooners will then begin Big 12 play, in a conference that saw an NCAA record seven teams reach the NCAA Tournament a year ago. "This year's schedule presents us with many opportunities both at home and on the road," stated Coale. "Once again, the Big 12 Conference promises to be the toughest women's basketball league in the country. We add to that two non-conference showcase events, the State Farm Tip-Off Classic and the Big 12/Big 10 Challenge. As brutal as this schedule is, it prepares us for the NCAA Tournament and that's what the season is all about."

In all, Oklahoma will play a school-record 12 games on television, including two games on ESPN2 and one ESPN appearance. In addition, the Big 12 Conference Fox Sports Network package showcases the Sooners five times, the most of any league team. OU's up-tempo style of play will be seen and enjoyed by basketball fans across the nation. With that much exposure, Oklahoma women's basketball will be etched into millions of young players' minds. "I think that shows the national respect our program has earned," said Coale of the extensive television exposure. "We play an exciting brand of basketball and return some of the elite players in the nation."

Will the Sooners' approach be different now that they have the proverbial bullseye on their back? In the past, OU was the team striving for success at the conference and national level. Will it be different as the team that everyone else is shooting for? Coale says no.

"Our team has worked diligently to earn the target that now sits squarely on our backs," said Coale. "We've been on both ends. We were the hunted throughout conference play last year and we handled it very well. Being the hunted means you're in front of almost everyone else, so I'll take that if I get to choose." Oklahoma has formulated its system for success over the past three years and expects to build on the program's previous accomplishments this year.

"We're proud of our accomplishments and proud of the reputation we've created for our program and university," said Coale, "but we're certainly not satisfied. The goal of this year's team is to win a national championship. We will formulate a host of goals and objectives that will ultimately lead us toward San Antonio, but our overriding goal is to become the best team in America."