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E-Conversation with Lakehead University about Darnellia Russell

Most of you have probably heard that Darnellia Russell will be playing in Ontario, Canada for Lakehead University in her continued quest to play in the WNBA.

Well, I got an email from Lakehead University's sports information director -- Mike Aylward -- which led to an extended discussion about Russell's commitment and Lakehead's program. We also got into a discussion about how sports organizations can increase their visibility through web casting...but I'll get back to that at a later date.

I figured others might be interested in pieces of that discussion, particularly Russell's future plans, how she fits into Lakehead's system, and more about what this means to the university. I hope it provides a tiny bit of insight into where Russell is at in her basketball career and where she's going rather than the much publicized (and often inaccurate) story of where she's been.

Just to refresh your memory: Russell is best known for her role in the documentary "The Heart of the Game" (which you should see if you haven't see it yet). She played for the Seattle Community College Storm while attending North Seattle Community College from 2004-2006 and has now committed to playing for Lakehead University in Ontario. Russell has three years of eligibility remaining since the Canadian Interuniversity Sport – the Canadian equivalent of the NCAA -- allows five years of eligibility. Russell still has her sights set on the WNBA though and it sounds like she plans to do so after finally getting her degree.

Aylward put me in contact with head coach Jon Kreiner. who was kind enough to answer a few simple questions about his new star recruit and the Lakehead women's basketball team.

Q: The Globe and Mail article made reference to Russell's need to attend a four- year institution in order to play in the WNBA. Has she discussed that with the coaching staff and, if so, how many seasons are they expecting her to play at Lakehead?

JK: I am expecting that Darnellia will play 3 seasons at Lakehead. She has three years of eligibility left in Canada and with her transfer credits from Seattle CC she will be able to attain a 4-year degree in three years.

Q: What type of system does the Lakehead team run and how might Russell fit into it?

JK: We will be running a very close version of the dribble-drive motion offense. It will be lead by both Darnellia and fellow guard Tasia McKenna (point guard from Halifax, NS who will start, giving Lakehead one of the best back-courts in the country) with dribble attack concepts from the point by; i) elbow attack, ii) point-to-point attack and iii) high ball-screens.

From there our players will be well trained as to the motion concepts to play off Darnellia's and Tasia's reads by rotating behind, sliding away and back door cuts (in & out cuts with the posts and shooters moving into the passing lanes or back door vs good shooter coverage and overplay).

Defensively we will be one of the most athletic teams in the country (if not the most) from point guard down to post. We will trap and rotate on defense as the players see fit (almost a motion defense)! Aggressive in your face on the wings, great ball pressure and forcing lobs in the post.

CIS uses international rules (FIBA) with a 24 second shot clock and 8 seconds to get it over half court so this style of play works well with those rules.

We have one player, 5'11" Kathryn Verboom (5th year wing from Thunder bay, ON) come close to making the national team last week (5 cuts away), Tasia McKenna is a 5'4" Point Guard that is a terrific shooter and passer, 6'2" Shannon Vellinga will start in the Post and is one of our most athletic and fastest players. Obviously Darnellia will start but we will be looking for the 5th starter come training camp. Top potentials would be Chiaki Nakamura from Japan (5'9" guard) who is a great 3 point shooter (and also played at North Seattle Community College), Lisa styles who is a 5'8" athletic guard, 6'2" Forward Lindsay Druery or 5'11" forward Kendelle Kavanagh. 5'11" wing sarah Gordon also played well at the end of last season and is a great 3 point shooter.

Q: What, if anything, surprised you about her (skill set or personality) when you met her in person?

JK: Darnellia surprised me with her team first mentality. When she played in her first scrimmage she took 1 shot. She then came to me and said, "It will take me a little time to get to know the players before I get going." She was already setting herself up for next year and for winning those scrimmages. She was not worried about showing what she could do offensively but what she could do to win games, like a true point guard. Her personality was also very "easy" meaning easy to talk to and get along with. That goes for the coaching staff and players.

Q: From a coaching standpoint, are there any skills in particular that you plan to help her with in preparation for the WNBA?

JK: She needs to be a much more consistent shooter. Hopefully I can help her with that in three years!


It appears as though this commitment is a great mutual fit -- Lakehead wants to play uptempo and Russell's speed and court vision should facilitate that. Given Russell’s skill set, the team should be pretty exciting to watch with a dribble drive offense and a few three point shooters. (The X’s and O’s of basketball blog has a nice post about the dribble drive to give you a sense of what that looks like).

The signing has already generated a buzz about this fall's women's basketball season at Lakehead, according to Aylward.

She is creating quite a stir here; which I think is great considering our marquee team is the hockey team...Darnellia's recruitment creates more excitement for basketball at Lakehead in a year which also sees a promising men's recruiting class and the fact that hockey will host the CIS national championships (unlike NCAA, in CIS the host gets a berth in champs)...Having Darnellia will anchor a pretty good squad and raise them up while the men's team has an incredible player from Baltimore as its star and had a great recruiting class too.
Relevant Links:

The CIS Blog: Women's hoops: a Russell roundup

Transition points:

The Globe and Mail as well as other major media outlets have picked up the story thus far. It will no doubt help with future recruiting during Russell’s tenure and beyond. "There is a lot of community support for women's basketball in Thunder Bay and women's basketball and fan support this year should be great," said Kreiner.

Thus far, it’s Russell’s court vision that has most impressed her new teammates (click the link for other impressions of Russell's game):
"I think we’ve found somebody who’s a really good passer, just from scrimmaging with her the one time she was here in April. She can pass really well, she sees the court really well, and I think with time will be able to play to everyone’s strengths," said Verboom, one of the final five cuts at last week’s national women’s team training camp in southern Ontario.
Additional thoughts from Kreiner about Russell:
Darnellia is a great athlete with a tremendous knowledge of the game. She is a winner, winning at all levels of play. Even in our scrimmages; you could see that it was about doing what was needed to be done to win. She can score and defend but her greatest strengths are her vision, ball-handling, passing ability and knowledge of the game.
…and as Helen noted in the comments on Tuesday's post about Russell, the details about why she didn’t obtain a Division I scholarship – and why she was denied entry to the WNBA -- are still somewhat unclear:

"She started university, but while concentrating on her schoolwork, she ran out of eligibility."

"Russell, cast aside by two high schools after getting pregnant, forced to sue the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to restore a fifth-year of eligibility, and shunned by Division 1 schools in the U.S…"

By the way, because no television networks will come to the small city of Thunder Bay, Ontario to broadcast games, Aylward set up a system for video and audio casting Lakehead games via the web. Perhaps some inspiration for the WNBA to find a way to "independently broadcast" marquee games that aren’t picked up by networks?

If you want to keep up with Russell and Lakehead, their season starts in the fall and the games available via webcast for the low price of $6.95 Canadian…which should be about US $30 by the fall. ;)

Here’s their schedule for the fall:⊂=Schedule

You may be able to tell that I loved the Heart of the Game. It was not only a great documentary, but should be considered among the best sports movies, surpassed only by Hoop Dreams which is one of my favorite movies ever.