As she enters her 25th season at the helm of the Oklahoma women's basketball program, there's not much that can take Sherri Coale by surprise.
Nevertheless, even the Sooners' veteran head coach acknowledges that she's still trying to figure out how to adapt to a global pandemic.
And despite the constant pall that COVID-19 casts over the sporting world, Coale says that her squad has taken the unforeseen circumstances in stride.
"They've done a great job of just being unflappable," she remarked. "I'm super proud of our kids. They have just really accepted the challenge."
The Sooners are coming off two consecutive losing seasons, which marks the first time the program has slipped below .500 since Coale's second year at the helm in 1997-98. However, the Sooners' 12-18 mark in last year's truncated slate of action isn't necessarily indicative of their actual potential. Oklahoma lost six games by two possessions or fewer, including two back-breaking overtime contests against Texas Tech and Kansas State.
As the focus turns to a wholly unique year across collegiate athletics, Coale isn't concerned about the pandemic's impact on her team.
"The shortened schedule will have an effect," said Coale. "But guess what? Everybody has a shortened schedule. So it's not like we got the raw end of the deal. Everybody is going to have to adapt."
The Sooners have done - and continue to do - just that. When asked if she could point to one player that had taken great strides over the course of the quarantine period, Coale called out junior forward Madi Williams.
"She's just a different creature than she was a year ago," said Coale of Williams. "Her presence is greater and she's playing harder with purpose all the time."
Coale also gave immense praise to her small-town recruit, Tatum Veitenheimer, for her improvement over the course of the offseason. Last year, many opponents didn't treat Veitenheimer as a legitimate threat to shoot, and Coale says the junior guard used that disrespect as motivation.
"She is one of the kids that made the most of being stuck at her home," said Coale. "She was in Windthorst, Texas. She has an old rickety goal that's kind of broken, and the wind's knocked it sideways. And she couldn't always shoot the way she would like to get in the gym and shoot.
"So her goal over the spring and summer was to become a better shooter, and then she gets stuck in Windthorst without a gym to go to, and a rickety goal outside in the Texas wind. So she worked on her game from a shooting standpoint as much as she could, but she also spent a lot of time visualizing and going through the mental muscle memory pattern of being a great shooter. And she's a much more confident shooter now than she was last year."
The loss of senior Ana Llanusa will hurt, as the Sooners' star point guard underwent season-ending surgery last week. Coale played without any seniors in the 2019-20 campaign, and with Llanusa sidelined, forward Mandy Simpson is the only senior that will see action for Oklahoma this year. However, the Sooners do welcome a trio of talented freshmen to the fold in Heavenly Greer, Nevaeh Tot and Skylar Vann.
Oh, and lest anyone forget, Oklahoma also boasts preseason All-Big 12 guard Taylor Robertson, arguably the nation's best three-point shooter.
"She never wants practice to be over, she comes in and works on her own... you'd like to have 25 of her," Coale said of Robertson. "And she's getting better. ... T-Rob makes more shots in practice than any kid I've ever coached, hands down. She just conditions you to expect the ball to go in."
Robertson is coming off one of the best individual seasons in school history; she shattered program and Big 12 records with 131 treys in 2019-20. The 5-foot-7 junior is also the NCAA's active leader in career field goal percentage, as she finds the net at an absurd .443 clip.
Coale's team will open the season at home on Nov. 25 against Houston. On the other side of the Thanksgiving holiday, they'll take a trip north to Vermillion, S.D. for the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic, which runs from Nov. 28 to Nov. 30.
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