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WNIT champion Rockets back on practice court


UT seniors Jessica Williams, #23 and Melissa Goodall watch E. Michigan dribble around them during 2011 Mid-American Conference Women's Basketball semifinals at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

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Tricia Cullop could barely contain her enthusiasm as the University of Toledo women's basketball team conducted its first full-squad practice of the 2011-12 season Wednesday at Savage Arena.

The Rockets already have 10 workouts under their belts due to an NCAA loophole that allows teams traveling overseas to practice before their trip. UT visited Israel for 11 days in August and played in two exhibition games during their time there.

"We're very excited to get going," Cullop said. "The opportunity to go to Israel kind of whetted our appetite for what starts today."

The reigning Women's National Invitation Tournament champions were missing one key ingredient during their practices in August, but she was front and center yesterday.

Senior guard Naama Shafir, the 2011 WNIT MVP, is one of three returning starters and nine letterwinners back for UT.

"It's always fun to have the first official practice," Shafir said. "We're ready to start."

It's been just six months since UT celebrated its WNIT title at Savage Arena, but Shafir said while the Rockets will never forget those six home victories during their magical postseason run, the past will remain in the past.

"We'll always remember that. It was a special year for us," Shafir said. "It was good to have that experience. We now know what it takes to win and beat some good teams. But it's over and we're ready to have a special year this year."

The Rockets will take on Ashland in an exhibition contest on Nov. 5 at Savage Arena and then open their regular season at home against Dayton on Nov. 13.

"We know what we accomplished last year, so we know we can make it as far as we want to," junior center and Start graduate Yolanda Richardson said. "We have a greater goal this year than we did last year."

That ultimate goal is making it to the NCAA tournament, something the Rockets fell short of last season.

"I don't think it's a secret that we'd like to get to the NCAA tournament," Cullop said. "In hindsight, what happened to us last year may have been a blessing in disguise because we had an opportunity to build our fan base and generate a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for women's basketball in our community.

"But it's been a while since we've hung an NCAA banner, and I know this team is very committed to trying to make that goal become a reality."

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