Georgia Tech women's basketball is probably the best kept secret in Atlanta. Sports loyalties in Georgia seem to be divided between Georgia Tech in Atlanta and Georgia in the rest of the state. Even so the real rivalry centers around football, the "Clean, Old Fashioned Hate" as it is called. During women's basketball games, freshman Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Pep Band members wear what is called a RAT cap, which looks something like a beanie. The RAT cap - the letters stand for "Recruit at Tech" - reads "To HELL with georgia" on the back. These caps were worn long before Title IX and do not refer to Andy Landers's successful program in Athens.
Compared to football, basketball gets little attention in Georgia. But in fact, the Georgia Tech women's program is very good and much of the present success of the Yellow Jackets can be attributed to head coach MaChelle Joseph, now in her eighth season as head coach at Georgia Tech. Her predecessor Agnus Berenato - now at Pittsburgh - finished a 15-year tenure at Atlanta with a 223-209 record but was never able to get Georgia Tech above .500 in Atlantic Coast Conference play. Even with the team handicapped in the ACC, Berenato led the Yellow Jackets to four post-season appearances in her final four years at Georgia Tech. This was good enough to get Berenato recruited to Pittsburgh. The baton was handed down to Joseph, who had come to the Georgia Tech program as an assistant coach after stints at Purdue and Auburn.
Since MaChelle Joseph took over on May 19th 2003 she struggled through three losing seasons before her first winning season in 2006-07 and a 9-5 finish in ACC play - the first time Georgia Tech had ever finished above .500 in the ACC. The 2006-07 season was the beginning of four consecutive 20-win seasons and four consecutive NCAA appearances. Last year's 23-10 record tied Georgia Tech's all-time record for most wins in a season, last achieved in the 1977-78 season - and the Yellow Jackets were feasting on the likes of August College and Georgia Baptist back then. Joseph's Yellow Jackets have been 129-86 during her tenure in Atlanta. This February, the Yellow Jackets were ranked as high as #19 in the Associated Press women's poll.
So how does one push a women's basketball program into the upper reaches of notoriety? Georgia Tech has recently released its complete 2010-11 schedule, and it's my hope to write about Georgia Tech basketball over the coming season.
1. Local bragging rights: in the first ten days of the season, the Yellow Jackets will play five different teams. Two of those teams are Georgia State and Kennesaw State. In December the Yellow Jackets play arch-rival Georgia at home, and after Christmas Georgia Tech will play against Mercer.
Joseph has stressed before many times that if a team wants to be prominent, it must be the best team in its own state. Against Kennesaw State, Georgia State and Mercer, Joseph is a perfect 13-0. The problem is that another team in Georgia - the one in Athens - has gone to two NCAA title games and is tough every year. Joseph is only 2-5 lifetime against Georgia, but she's done a lot better against the Bulldogs than other coaches - including her two wins, the program is 3-29 against Georgia lifetime. On December 5th, Joseph gets another chance, this time at home, to attempt to break Georgia's chokehold on women's basketball.
2. Play the best to be the best: Of course, the Yellow Jackets play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which might be the second best of the major Division I conferences next to the Big East. But this year, the Yellow Jackets will play three of the top four teams in the country last year - Duke in conference play, Tennessee on a neutral court...and the biggest of them all, the Connecticut Huskies in Atlanta on November 21st.
Two years ago - on November 16, 2008 - the Yellow Jackets threw a scare into the Huskies at Storrs, closing to within three points with 5:12 left to go in the game before Connecticut pulled away to win 82-71. During the first of Connecticut's two perfect seasons, no team finished within single digits of the Huskies all season.
In addition to Connecticut and Tennessee, Georgia Tech will face Georgetown, Middle Tennessee State and Old Dominion. Out of the thirty teams on Georgia Tech's schedule, sixteen appeared in the post-season last year.
3. Find a pipeline: Last season marked the graduation of Brigitte Ardossi, who carried the team to a 23-10 season and ended up a second-round WNBA draft pick by the Atlanta Dream. She was the fourth Yellow Jacket to be drafted under Joseph's tenure. But where do you find players like Brigitte Ardossi?
If you knew that Ardossi was Australian, then the answer becomes clear. You look overseas. Players like Jasmina Pacariz and Chioma Nnamaka from Sweden and Guiliette Ancora and Ardossi have graced Tech rosters. In every year that Joseph has been head coach there has been at least one foreign national on the roster.
This year's roster - a roster with sixteen players - has three Swedes. Sophomore forward Danielle Hamilton-Carter was ruled ineligible last season due to international rules. At 6-4, Hamiton-Carter will help make this year's roster the tallest of Joseph's Yellow Jacket teams. 6-2 forward Sandra Hashaya-Ngoie and 6-2 guard/forward Frida Fogdemark will join the team this year as freshmen. Hamilton-Carter averaged 15.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and Fogdemark averaged 6.9 points and 6.7 rebounds for the Swedish under-20 team in this year's U20 European Championship, but the Swedes finished 15th out of 16 teams. Having Hamilton-Carter and Fogdemark on the Yellow Jackets helps both Georgia Tech as well as giving both players valuable experience playing against America's best talent.
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Georgia Tech stands to finish high in the ACC this year. Guard/forward Alex Montgomery and guard Deja Foster are seniors, and Montgomery is one of the best players in the country when she's healthy. Junior Mo Bennett should be coming into her own as a point guard. Sasha Goodlett is a 6-5 center who can surprise with amazing games. If Georgia Tech doesn't make the NCAA tournament, it would be shocking. The goal, however, is to get to the Sweet Sixteen - and if they go beyond that, then Georgia Tech women's basketball will no longer be Atlanta's best kept secret.