Women's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Amanda Butler was relaxed and in good spirits as she sat on a couch inside her office late last week. Butler was about to hit the road for a few days to recruit and potentially reload.
While her UF basketball counterpart on the other side of the building, men’s head coach Billy Donovan, was in Europe leading the U.S. U19 team to gold at the FIBA World Championships, Butler’s focus was squarely on her Gators women’s team.
The Florida women made news in June when a pair of promising young players – forward Sydney Moss and guard Chandler Cooper – opted to transfer. The Gators enter next season also without center Vicky McIntyre, a transfer from Oklahoma State who left the program late last season.
Those losses, coupled with the departure of senior forward Jennifer George off a team that finished 22-15 and advanced to the WNIT semifinals last season, might cause some to question if the Gators can match their surprising run to the WNIT's Final Four.
In Butler's six seasons since she returned to her alma mater, the Gators have made six postseason trips -- two to the NCAA Tournament and four to the WNIT.
Butler is optimistic a seventh consecutive postseason trip awaits a team for which she believes 10 is enough. As in 10 players.
"There’s not anybody that we don’t expect to play a big role,’’ Butler said. “We’ve got 10 kids and we’re calling them the 'Perfect 10' – that’s also how they are training and behaving. I think it’s going to be a really, really strong and tight-knit focused group.
"All the kids I think have handled the adversity really, really well of some teammates quitting on them in June. It’s made them more appreciative of each other and it’s made them tighter. We are doing a lot to make sure we’re talking about those sorts of things, that it is not a limiting factor. We’ll be 10 strong.”
The newest member of Florida's Ten Club is the most decorated player on the roster.
Freshman Ronni Williams has enrolled and is participating in offseason workouts with her new teammates after an outstanding career at Port Orange's Atlantic High. A 6-foot-2 forward, Williams was a McDonald's All-American and named the Class 4A Player of the Year as a senior.
Williams became the first player in Volusia County history to earn Daytona Beach News-Journal Player of the Year honors for four consecutive years after she averaged 20.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 3.2 steals and led the Sharks to the Class 4A Final Four this spring.
Williams is versatile enough to play inside or outside and arrives at UF as arguably the top recruit in school history. The daughter of former Gator Rodney Williams, who played at UF in the early 1980s, Ronni picked the Gators over Tennessee, Georgia, Florida State and Baylor.
“She is just a great fit for us,’’ Butler said. “She is tall, she is long and she’s the kind of kid that can play anywhere in a press or anywhere defensively, and for that matter, offensively, too. A very well-rounded skill set.
"She is a Florida kid, so that was a big deal. That’s one of the things that we’ve fought very hard the past six years to establish, to be able to get the best players in Florida. She is one of the best in the country. She is going to have a great chance to make an impact as a freshman.”
Two other newcomers are transfers Cassie Peoples and Antoinette Bannister. Peoples started her college career at Texas, where her freshman season was cut short due to a season-ending injury. She spent last season at UF and was recently cleared after shoulder surgery in the spring.
Meanwhile, Bannister transferred to Florida from North Carolina for family reasons. She started classes in the spring and received a partial waiver from the NCAA to be eligible to play for the Gators when the season opens this fall.
Peoples' play-making ability in the backcourt is a nice addition to a group that returns leading scorer Jaterra Bonds (13.1 points) from last season.
"When Cassie was coming out [of high school], I thought she was the best point guard in the country in her class,’’ Butler said. “There were some unforeseen things that led her back to us. She’s great with the ball, really strong and can shoot it. She takes great pride in knowing the game. She is great at creating, really tricky with the ball in her hands. She’ll be one to get some oohs and aahs with some of the passes she can make."
Bannister is a physical player who has good range and can score inside with an array of deceptive moves Butler said.
The tallest player on the roster is 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore center Viktorija Dimaite, who after missing back-to-back seasons due to injuries, is healthy and expected to make her collegiate debut this fall. Butler said Dimaite has improved considerably since joining the program and is excited about what she can offer.
"I really felt she was going to be the player last year that everyone was going to go, ‘who’s this? Where did she come from?’ And then she tore her ACL the first week of the season,'' Butler said. "She’ll be unique with her height. We are not going to be small but we’re also not going to have a ton of size in the post. She can really shoot the ball. When you think of that European style of game, she fits that.”
Kayla Lewis, January Miller, Christin Mercer, Carlie Needles and senior Lily Svete round out the roster.
All five players contributed significantly last season and Butler will rely heavily on them again.
As part of her offseason program, Butler handed out copies of former Duke star and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas' book "Toughness."
That is a word and attribute that could help the Gators as they weave their way from summer to fall.
“I’m really excited about the year,'' Butler said. "I feel so good about it. The 10 kids that we have are working their tails off. They have, I think, a very threatening compilation of skill-sets."
The Perfect 10.