Prior to the start of last season UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey believed that freshman Stefanie Dolson needed to be successful if the Huskies were going to be successful as a team. Once the workouts began in the weight room and in the gym for conditioning drills Dailey had little idea what to expect.
Dolson, a 6-foot-5 center, was not as strong as she needed to be. Her conditioning was hardly at an elite level. And her idea of how hard she had to work to make an impact for the Huskies was not on par with that of the coaching staff.
It wasn’t until Dolson spent the final minutes on the bench soaking in a 71-59 loss at Stanford Dec. 30 that she truly recognized what she needed to do to help UConn succeed. She needed to get in better shape, first and foremost. And over the final 25 games, she emerged as a steady presence for a team that reached the Final Four for the 12th time.
“There was definitely some uncertainty, but once we hit January I wasn’t surprised (by Dolson’s success),’’ Dailey said. “Once she made the commitment and she actually did something … Saying it is one thing. She said she wanted to do it. Then she did it. Then I knew (she would be successful).’’
Dolson averaged 10.2 points on 61.6 percent shooting from the field and 6.1 rebounds in 24.2 minutes in 38 games (36 starts) for the Huskies. She was named to the Big East All-Freshman Team and to the conference all-tournament team when she averaged 20.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in three games.
Her progress throughout the season can be easily measured. Dolson averaged 7.3 points and 4.8 rebounds in 16.3 minutes through the first 13 games. Over the final 25 games following the loss to Stanford, she averaged 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds in 28.3 minutes. She reached double figures in scoring in 15 games during this stretch, scoring at least 20 points in four games.
“I think overall I’m proud of the way I played and just how the whole year went,’’ Dolson said. “I think the most important part about freshman year is just becoming more comfortable with the team, growing as a player. And I think a lot of people can agree that I grew a lot from the beginning of the year to the end and I’ve just become a whole different player. So, to me, that’s the best thing you can get out of freshman year.’’
This week Dolson is one of 34 players competing at the USA Basketball U-19 World Championship Team Trials in Colorado Springs, Colo. She is joined by fellow UConn starter Bria Hartley, incoming freshmen Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Kiah Stokes, UConn Class of 2012 commits Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck and Huskies’ Class of 2013 target Diamond DeShields.
The trials conclude Wednesday when the list of 16 finalists will be revealed. Dolson, Hartley and DeShields helped lead the U.S. to the gold medal at the FIBA Americas U-18 Championship last summer.
“This week is extremely important,’’ Dolson said. “It’s important for my confidence, just for myself to prove that I can make this team and that I’m one of the best in the country. Last year was a great opportunity and this year we’re going to be playing amongst even better players. So to make it would be a really great reward for working hard.’’
Dolson also said that this off-season is extremely important. She realizes that her success during the 2011-12 season will mean nothing if she does not improve and build on it as a sophomore.
Dailey touched on a few areas where she would like to see Dolson improve heading into next season.
“She’s definitely got to get stronger and her conditioning has to be better,’’ Dailey said. “She’s got to change the look of her body. And I think she’s working on that. I think that will come. I think she understands now after what she went through last year how important that is and how much that can help her. And then from a skill development I think we need to have her dominate the lane and then add …. I don’t necessarily think I want to add just the face-up stuff right now where she catches it with her back to the basket. We need to continue to work on her footwork. We need to have her have a go-to move where she scores every time she catches the ball in the lane and then add some more perimeter stuff where right now I think every time she shoots the 15-footer it’s going in and move that gradually out. She has to become a better rebounder (at both ends), absolutely.’’
The success Dolson achieved significantly helped enhance the level of her confidence. She now feels as though she has reached a level where she can serve as a leader next season in the wake of the loss of All-American Maya Moore and Lorin Dixon.
The expectations have changed for Dolson due to the experience she received in her first season with the program. No longer is she a question mark. Now she is expected to be a steady contributor in practice and in games and be even better than she was as a freshman.
“I think she has a lot of great experience,’’ Dailey said. “That’s experience that most freshmen don’t get and because you have that experience you now know what to expect. So I’m expecting even more when she comes back for her sophomore year.’’
Here are some more comments from Dolson, Dailey and U-19 head coach Jen Rizzotti …
What helped you most this year?
“I think the coaches and my teammates,’’ Dolson said. “I think my teammates, especially I always give a lot of credit to Maya. Being able to play with her for one year is probably the best thing I could’ve asked for. And she just helped me grow as a player and she just helped me with my confidence. She’s always there supporting, telling you what to do, what not to do, cheering you on. I think having her as an example really shows you how hard to work during practice. So I give most credit to her.’’
Can Dolson reach level of UConn’s all-time elite centers?
“Here’s the thing … We forget what Tina Charles looked like when she was freshman and sophomore,’’ Dailey said. “All we think about is what she was the end of her junior year and her senior year. Stefanie certainly isn’t the rebounder … But Stefanie made basketball plays this year that Tina didn’t make until she was a junior and senior from a feel … She has a great feel for the game. She doesn’t have necessarily, obviously the athletic body that Tina had. But I think she’s going to do different things than Tina and be effective. Where that puts her versus everybody else I have no idea and I would rather wait until the end of her senior year and have us say, `OK, yes, she had a great career and she was better than this one, this one, this one.’ And then you guys can argue about that.’’
Does Dolson have the potential to be an All-American?
“Being an All-American, a lot of it has to do with how well our team does,’’ Dailey said. “So I don’t know. I’ve never worried about that. I think she needs to work like she wants to be an All-American. She needs to work like we want to win the national championship. She needs to do all those things. And if does all those things I assume that the rest of it will come.’’
Difference between Dolson now had last simmer when she eas with the U.S. U-18 team?
“I’m really impressed with Stefanie, as much as anyone here,’’ said Rizzotti, who also coached the U-18 team. “I saw her throughout the year so I know how much better she got. But the difference in her from last year when I wasn’t even sure she was good enough to make the team to this year where she’s one of the best players on the floor consistently, I’m proud of her because she’s worked so hard. She’s tougher and in better shape and her confidence level is so high. I’m happy for her, proud of her, with a little bit of a mother feeling since I coached her a little bit.’’
Dolson recently returned from a family trip to Europe …
“It was wonderful,’’ Dolson said. “It was my first time out of America. We flew into London, went to Venice, Rome, and Paris, and back to London. The best part was being with my sisters because I haven’t seen them a lot in the last year. The best city was Rome. We went to the Coliseum, the Vatican, … It was amazing.’’
DeShields, a 6-1 wing from Norcross, Ga. who is regarded as the best player in the Class of 2013, is no where near making a decision. She said she will sit down with Norcross coach Angie Hembree at some point this summer to formulate a list of about five schools.
DeShields is, obviously, talented beyond her years. But she is also extremely humble and well spoken.