Army women moving forward as season nears

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- The fast-approaching start of the upcoming season demands their attention.

The players and coaches of the Army women's basketball team spent almost the entire offseason attending memorials for Maggie Dixon, their former coach who died of heart arrhythmia on April 6 at the age of 28.

They buried her in the West Point Cemetery, a rare honor for a civilian. In the backyard of the house on the Academy grounds reserved for the women's basketball coach, they remembered her with a flower garden.

And the reminders of Dixon certainly didn't diminish when practices began in October.

"There are certain drills that we'd always do or that she brought in last year,'' said junior guard Cara Enright, last season's Patriot League Player of the Year. "They tend to bring back a lot of memories of her.''

But on Sunday the Cadets' 2006-07 season opens against seventh-ranked Ohio State. The Army women and Dave Magarity, who was Dixon's assistant but has since taken over head coaching duties, know they must fix their attention on the task at hand. It's something Dixon would have insisted upon as a sequel to Army's first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. There is a Patriot League title to defend. There is success begging to be built upon.

"We know that to be a good team we have to remain focused and look toward what our goal is,'' said Alex McGuire, the league's rookie of the year in 2006 after averaging 11.0 points. "We can't have too many lapses. I know there's going to be lapses every once in awhile. It's going to happen. But so far our focus has been pretty good this season.''

Magarity seems to agree, and though he probably will always worry about how his players will continue to deal with Dixon's passing, he says the team is on the right path emotionally.

"We're going to be OK,'' he said. "Some have handled it better than others, but they're all handling it."

Another worry, however, is how the Black Knights handle things physically, on the court. For the first time, Army faces high expectations. The reigning Patriot League champion returns four starters from last season's team, and the Cadets were picked to finish first again in a poll of the league's coaches and sports information directors.

"My concern now is how we handle the expectations we place on ourselves," said Magarity, whose team is honoring Dixon by wearing a duplication of a tattoo she had -- the initials MD inside a clover leaf -- on the back of their practice shirts. "The expectations have never been higher for this program than they are this year.''

Magarity expects stiff challenges -- and no favors -- from Bucknell, which returns all five starters, and Holy Cross, which lost three times to Army last season by a combined total of 10 points.

In addition to McGuire and Enright -- who led Army in scoring (16.5 ppg), assists (70) and steals (46) and ranked third in rebounding (4.7) last season -- 5-foot-10 senior Jen Hansen and 5-11 junior Stefanie Stone are back in their starting roles. Erin Begonia, a 5-7 senior who started the first 13 games last season, also returns after missing the second half of the season due to academic problems. But the Cadets must replace 6-1 post Megan Vrabel, who averaged 6.5 points and 4.4 rebounds last season as one of three players to start all 31 games.

Last we saw Army on the court, Candace Parker made history by becoming the first woman to dunk in the NCAA Tournament as Tennessee blew out the Cadets 102-54. Still, the first-round rout didn't diminish Army's breakthrough, 20-win season that included a 12-game winning streak.

"This isn't something that's going to go away," Dixon said after the game. "They're going to remember it for the future, and use it as motivation."

The Cadets won't need any added incentive Sunday in what is sure to be an emotional first step of the season. Ohio State, which was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season, comes to West Point for the inaugural Maggie Dixon Classic, a doubleheader Maggie's brother, Jamie Dixon, hopes will someday be played annually at Madison Square Garden. For now, his Pittsburgh Panthers play Western Michigan at noon ET, followed by a 3:30 p.m. ET tip-off for the women. Both games will be televised on ESPNU.

Between the two games, Army officials will unfurl two banners, one for the women's Patriot League championship and a second honoring Dixon as the 2006 Patriot League Coach of the Year. Both will find a permanent home inside Christl Arena, just like the team's memories of Dixon.

"It's going to be emotional,'' McGuire said. "I'm sure it will be, but we have a game to play. We know this one's for coach. We're going to play our hearts out.''

Added Enright: "There are going to be a lot of distractions for us [this season]. We have to make sure that everybody on the team from the seniors down to the freshmen realizes that we're going to play basketball and do the best we can.''

Though she was only at West Point for seven months after being hired in October 2005 from DePaul coach Doug Bruno's staff, Dixon made a lasting impact on all her players.

"Their frame of reference for her is one year, actually less than a year,'' Magarity said as he sat in his office at the Kimsey Athletic Center. "She made such a profound impact on them. She was clearly the right person at the
right time for these kids.''

And perhaps, too, for Magarity. He had previously coached men's basketball -- at Marist, Iona and St. Francis (Pa.) -- until joining Dixon's staff last fall. He had been out of coaching for more than a year since leaving Marist.

"I'll be honest, I'm not doing this if not for Maggie Dixon,'' Magarity said. "This is going to be a challenge, but I'm not worried about that. My concern is the girls.

"I don't want them to think they can't bring her up. People say we have to move on. Why? Why can't we talk about her? I understand what they're going through. I lost somebody, too. The thing I think is important is that whenever we do talk about her, it's always great memories.''

Mike Waters writes for the Syracuse Post-Standard. He can be reached at mwaters@syracuse.com.