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3-peat will be challenge for Y. women

BYU's Ashley Cheesman is one of several Cougars returning to help the team shoot for a third straight MWC regular season title.
BYU's Ashley Cheesman is one of several Cougars returning to help the team shoot for a third straight MWC regular season title.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — With its 2007-08 season opener just three weeks away, the BYU women's basketball team is looking to blend its extremes as the Cougars begin their defense of back-to-back Mountain West Conference regular-season titles.

Those extremes to blend include a team mixed with veteran players and incoming talent, a combo attack seeking both up-tempo and set-play successes, and a pair of rather opposite team captains.

Mallary Gillespie Carling returns as a fourth-year starter at shooting guard, a stellar outside shooter with seemingly effortless play on the court. Lauren Riley Varley, the 6-foot-3 banger not afraid to flail away or dive to the floor, assumes the post role vacated by MWC co-player of the year Dani Wright.

Together, Carling and Varley (get used to their new married names) are like fire and ice — and striving to make their final years an appropriate curtain call.

A preseason first-team all-conference selection, Carling admits she'll need to work at creating her shot while upping her 13.6-point scoring average from last year, rather than expect to be left alone to fire away near the 3-point line. An all-MWC second-teamer last year, she's also breaking out of her comfort zone to reach out and lead the underclassmen-laden squad by word and deed.

And Varley, an MWC honorable-mention selection last year who struggled sometimes with fouls, conditioning and playing out of control, is looking to sustain the play that earned her a number of double-double postings in 2006-07.

Joining them as the Cougars' featured trio is junior swingman Shawnee Slade, a high-octane and athletic player who slashes on offense and will pick up the tougher perimeter defensive assignments.

They'll be counted on to help fill the voids left by the graduated threesome of Wright and guards Melinda Johnsen and Jennie Keele, who not only contributed on both ends of the court but gave last year's squad a gritty toughness.

The Cougars are facing a couple of additional key absences — starting point guard Haley Hall tore an ACL ligament this fall for the second time in 10 months and is out for the year, and talented forward Mary Martha Abell called it a college career, unable to return satisfactorily after a twice-torn-in-two-years knee injury.

True freshman Jazmine Foreman and sophomore backup Jamie Judkins will assume Hall's point duties. While the duo may not have considerable collegiate savvy, BYU coach Jeff Judkins is confident they have the appropriate push-and-pass mentality and background, unlike last year, when Hall's initial injury forced Johnsen and Keele to step into and share an unfamiliar point-guard role.

Cassie King and Ashley Cheesman return to give BYU size and experience with Varley underneath, while a couple of new faces — Utah transfer Sarah Red and redshirt Lauren Nichols — add to the perimeter presence.

Among the first-year Cougars are a half-dozen recruits who compose Judkins' strongest freshman class: Foreman, the 5-foot-5 speedster from Vancouver, Wash.; Utah 5A MVP Megan Marks, a polished 6-2 forward from Bingham High, Keilani Moeaki, a 6-2 forward from Chicago who was included in national top-50 recruiting lists; Mindy Nielson, a 5-10 Colorado all-state guard; Coriann Wood, a 6-1 forward from Washington's Tri-Cities area; and Stephanie Buhler, a 6-0 forward from Oregon City, Ore.

In this week's MWC preseason poll, the Cougars were picked to finish third in the nine-team, behind favorite Wyoming and TCU and just ahead of New Mexico and Utah.

BYU opens the regular season Nov. 9 at UC Santa Barbara.