Does Sacramento have what it takes to repeat?

Monarchs Shoot to Keep Their Crown

It's good to be the king. Or queen.

At least it used to be. The Houston Comets won four in a row. The Los Angeles Sparks then won back-to-back titles as well. But the Detroit Shock and Seattle Storm have proven that repeating as champions is not as easy as it used to be.

Will Lawson and company hoist the trophy again in 2006?
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
The Sacramento Monarchs surprised many experts by finally getting over that hump and winning the 2005 WNBA title, the first in franchise history and the city's first professional championship. They outlasted the Connecticut Sun, the favorite coming into the playoffs with the best regular season record. But the Monarchs finished with 25 wins and the second best record in the WNBA in 2005, one of four 20-game winners. Their 15 wins at home was the best in the WNBA and their 25 total wins was the best in franchise history. And once the playoffs began, it was clear the Monarchs were on a mission. And that success has translated to the greater Sacramento community.

"We were a keen basketball city before," Whisenant said. "Now women's basketball is getting more attention, which is nice. We're getting some hype in Sacramento, too, and we should see close to a sold-out crowd this week when we open there and we get our rings."

With last year's experience under their collective belt, plus the returning nucleus of 2005 WNBA Finals MVP Yolanda Griffith, the all-time WNBA assist leader in Ticha Penicheiro, clutch shooters in Nicole Powell and Kara Lawson and talented post players in Rebekkah Brunson and DeMya Walker, the Monarchs know how to win. Plus, coach John Whisenant's patented defensive schemes only need to shut down opposing teams for 24 seconds (rule changes implemented this offseason included a :24-second shot clock). Winning a championship should bolster their confidence and makes them hungry for more.

"We have some good veterans," Whisenant said. "Yolanda, obviously, is the older veteran in her mid-30s, in the last years of her career. She is just a great team leader, and couldn't be better for my defensive style. Ticha is our only other over-30 player, though she's barely over 30. They're good leaders."

With the core of experienced veterans and the infusion of younger talent the past few season, possibility of a repeat strong. But overconfident, they are not.

"I still feel like we're the underdogs," Brunson said. We were the underdogs the entire season last year, and we're still not going to get the respect we deserve coming into the season. It's ok, because last year we didn't get any respect and we came and we showed people that Sacramento can play."

Even though the Monarchs return much of their lineup from the 2005 squad, there are faces missing. Guard Chelsea Newton, a surprising rookie starter for the Monarchs last season, was nabbed by the Chicago Sky in the expansion draft. Olympia Scott signed with the Indiana Fever and All-Star forward DeMya Walker has yet to practice after giving birth in February. Walker is expected to return later this season, likely around June, but she will not be at 100% until next year. Kara Lawson also missed most of the preseason with an illness that is still being treated.

Coach Whisenant on the health of two starters:

"DeMya Walker expects to be back practicing within two months of the birth of her baby, which is around June 10th. How long will it take her to get in WNBA basketball playing shape? I have no idea. I've never been pregnant and I've never coached a pregnant player, so that one is really kind of an individual thing. My son is a doctor and our team doctors say its not really an absolute. Tina Thompson, for example, came back last year and played, but Tina was not the old Tina Thompson even after. When we played them in the playoffs, she had trouble stamina. As I understand she's playing great now."

"Kara Lawson... it's almost like chronic fatigue, but they've okayed her. She was better when we left (prior to our final preseason trip to New York) and they told her that she could start practicing when we returned. We don't want to push her to go harder than she can go, because we don't want her to have a relapse."

"We miss Kara Lawson with her illness and DeMya with her pregnancy," Whisenant said." Those are two starters. Plus, we lost in expansion to Chelsea Newton, so three of our top eight players are not with us."

They have also taken measures to strengthen their lineup in the offseason. With two first round draft picks, the Monarchs selected Utah forward Kim Smith and L.S.U. defensive guard Scholanda Dorrell with the 13th and 14th overall picks. Those two, plus the increased importance of role players like Hamchetou Maiga-Ba and guard Kristin Haynie will give the Monarchs a different feel. Haynie is a lock as the back-up to Penicheiro, but played 15 minutes per game as a rookie.

"We approach every game the same," second-year guard Kristin Haynie said. "Nothing changes day-to-day, nothing changes with what we did last year, and we are just going to do our thing on defense. I think our defense and our team chemistry got us where we were last year, so we're going to bring it this year, just like we did last year."

But every other WNBA team got stronger in the offseason as well, and each will bring their best game when playing the defending champions. Playing the defending champions is not just another game. Players get up for it, fans come out to see it and the media pays more attention to it.

"The second is tough, though, because everyone is gunning for you," Hall-of-Famer Ann Meyers said. "You have to play your best every night because you have a target on your back and everyone is going to come out playing you. When you go to play Houston, Los Angeles or Detroit and Seattle, teams get up for those games and there is extra motivation there."

Yet for all the motivation and hard work, Sacramento and Coach Whisenant have not lost their perspective.

"The pressure to win championships is on myself," he said. "I'm at a point in my life personally where I'm doing it because I enjoy it. I'm having a good time, and I stopped coaching to raise my family and then I came back to coaching. So not many guys have been able to do that, get away from it and then come back, so I'm just enjoying it right now."

For every other team in the WNBA, the goal is to see that Whisenant enjoys it just a little bit less than he did last year.