On a rainy Tuesday afternoon practice, Tonya Cardoza asks her team a simple, one-word question before the start of a drill.
That’s a question most women’s basketball fans will be asking of their new coach.
After 14 years as an assistant at Connecticut, Cardoza is replacing local legend Dawn Staley, who left for South Carolina after eight successful seasons guiding the Owls.
Cardoza said the transition from the background to the forefront is huge.
“It’s a big difference,” Cardoza said. “As an assistant, you can chill. As a head coach, you have to watch every play. You don’t get breaks at all.”
Cardoza got her big break when she found out Staley was possibly leaving for the Southeastern Conference. She talked with Staley and asked her to put in a good word with Temple officials. She also asked the same of her boss, Geno Auriemma.
Once she got the job, the first thing she did was talk to her new team.
“I told them it’s a new start for both of us,” she said. “Right now, I’ve been impressed with every single player.”
Cardoza had a pretty impressive playing career herself at Virginia. She helped lead the Cavaliers to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, and as a senior, she led her team in scoring while earning First Team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors.
Have an idea who was along for that ride? As luck would have it, it was Staley.
“Dawn and I have been best friends forever,” Cardoza said. “In college, we were inseparable.”
So perhaps it was just a coincidence that Staley happened to be the coach who held the job Cardoza happened to want.
The former Owls coach, who put together six seasons of 20 wins or more, became Temple’s all-time winningest coach last year and finished with a 172-80 record. She was twice named Atlantic Ten Coach of the Year in 2004 and 2005.
In Staley’s final season, the Owls went 21-13 and tied for first in the conference. They lost to Xavier in the A-10 title game and were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Arizona State. It was Temple’s fifth straight Tournament appearance.
Those are some lofty standards to meet, indeed.
“I can’t worry about what she’s done in the past,” Cardoza said. “I have to come in and not try to fill her shoes.”
That meant doing things her own way, and that begins with the way she interacts with her players.
“She’s a very down-to-earth coach and very open and easy to get along [and] talk with,” senior forward Shenita Landry said. “She came from a good program. Hopefully, she can bring some of that legacy to our program.”
That legacy, which started with Staley, was reliant on intense, in-your-face defense that was often too much for the other A-10 teams to handle.
But now things are different, as the offensive specialist in Cardoza is trying to improve a Temple attack that ranked 11th out of 14 teams in the A-10 in scoring offense last season.
Things won’t be easy for the Owls, who’ve lost their leading scorer and team leader in guard Ashley Morris and their leading rebounder and a key frontline scorer in center Lady Comfort.
“Guys that are here have tried their best to fill the void,” Cardoza said. “Everyone has a chance to show their talent now.”
For the Owls to succeed, that talent needs to translate directly to the team’s shooting percentage, which stood at just 40.7 percent from the field last year. To combat this, Cardoza is planning to open up the offense and force opposing defenses to guard the outside shot.
“Whoever is open is going to shoot the ball,” she said.
With Cardoza’s first coaching gig three days away from kicking off, the 20th women’s coach at Temple isn’t shooting for any particular goals. She isn’t predicting a conference title or an NCAA Tournament berth. All she wants is the game to be played the right way, and with that, success will surely follow.
“All I ask is that they go out on the court everyday and give 110 percent,” Cardoza said. “If we do that, we’ll put ourselves in position for whatever lies ahead of us.”
Pete Dorchak can be reached at email@example.com.