Mostly they just call her Mo, a name easier to yell across a gym floor than the cumbersome "Mary Ostrowski."
"Go for it, Mo!"
"Shoot it, Mo, shoot!"
And so she does, with a practiced no-waste motion. "I can shoot, all right, but I've got to move around much faster," she says. Mo, a 6'2", 165-pound forward, is also called a phenom. She was the only high school player invited to the final Olympic-team tryout last summer. At West Virginia's Parkersburg Catholic High, she scored 2,337 points over four seasons and survived a Ralph Sampson kind of senior year in which virtually all colleges in the nation begged her to suit up for them. She's got T shirts from most of them to prove it. Last March Ostrowski finally said no, thanks to Penn State and Old Dominion, the other two schools in her final three, and decided on the University of Tennessee—or "Transfer U.," as it's sometimes called.
In the past, disgusted opponents seethed as Lady Volunteer Coach Pat Head Summitt stocked her teams with players who had switched from other schools. Many of them blossomed into All-Americas. Now, though, with the signing of Mo, three other high school All-Americas and four other freshmen, Head Summitt may finally shed her pawnshop proprietor's reputation.
"The way people talked, they implied I illegally lured players here," she says, without really denying or admitting that she did just that. "But I always believed Tennessee had a good solid program, and with so many freshmen this season, we'll see all the pieces of the puzzle fit together." Jill Rankin, the Lady Vols' All-America of last season, who is now the graduate assistant coach at Tennessee, transferred from Wayland Baptist after her junior year. "I'd played for Pat on the 1979 Pan Am team, and I liked her system—a deliberate, work-your-butt-off style that produces winners," Rankin says. "I came here mainly because I saw it as a way to develop my entire game. When the Wayland coach quit before my senior year, I knew I'd be better off here."
Because this season's Tennessee team includes just a pair of transfers, seniors Susan Foulds from Virginia's George Mason University and Cindy Noble from Ohio State. Head Summitt has reason to hope all the sniping will come to a halt. "True, we've been fortunate enough to get some really talented transfers," she says, "but I've always been against the transfer rule in principle. I'd like to see a waiting period before a girl can start playing for the new school." Unlike the NCAA, which requires a male athlete to sit out a season upon transferring, the AIAW permits a female athlete to suit up as soon as she enrolls in a different college. But, in practice, Head Summitt also sees no reason to "punish" an athlete, as she puts it, for choosing the wrong program. "Some athletes are ill-advised and can wind up at schools where they're not going to be happy," she says. "If someone is not aware of our program at the time she graduates from high school and then later finds she'd like to come here, why should she have to suffer?"
Head Summitt knew that someday she'd be recruiting Ostrowski even before Mo entered high school. Four summers ago, the coach was attending a basketball camp in Fort Worth, when she spotted Mo shooting buckets in one corner of the TCU gym. "I thought she was a college player," Head Summitt says. "When I found out she'd soon begin her freshman year in high school, I knew that in four years she'd be the most highly recruited kid in the country. After working with her a bit during that camp, I recognized a really intelligent, thinking player." And, according to Head Summitt, Ostrowski's court sense still belies her age. "She constantly reads the defense," says the coach. "Mo carries herself well and has confidence. I think she's a combination of a natural athlete, because she does have some natural ability, and a self-made one, because she's always been willing to put in hours perfecting her game."
Late this fall, Ostrowski could be found working out on the Tennessee track three times a week, trying to develop the speed she feels will strengthen her game. First she does stretching exercises, then stiff-legged jumps, then wind sprints. "I can see my stride lengthening already," she says. A quick shower and Ostrowski heads to the weight room for her daily Universal Gym workout. All of the Lady Vols follow individually prescribed weight-training programs, most of them concentrating on leg and shoulder strengthening exercises.
An hour before practice, Head Summitt calls the players in to look at color films of the previous day's workout. They groan as their coach points out their mistakes. "Your effort here is pitiful," Head Summitt tells one. "You're slow here, just a little bit slow," she says to Ostrowski. There are giggles and quiet gibes, but Mo is silent, absorbing details for future reference. Once in the gym, Ostrowski works hard; while other players take a water break, she picks up a ball to practice her hook shot. "She's got an ambidextrous hook," says a teammate. "Mo will fake the defense into committing itself to her right, and then she'll whip one in with her left."
Head Summitt is counting on Ostrowski and her two-way hook to get the Lady Vols just one game further than they went last season, when Tennessee was ousted by Old Dominion in the AIAW finals. But the Lady Volunteers' chances of getting that far will be enhanced if Ostrowski improves her speed. She has agility aplenty, but, as she says, "Sometimes I take too long to move." Those training sessions with the Tennessee track coach—Ostrowski calls them "Remedial Running 101"—are gradually providing added quickness, but she's impatient. "I need to be faster now," she says.
Ostrowski's total absorption with basketball leaves her scant time for much else. Sure, she goes to class—she plans to major in physical education—but book learning usually takes a backseat to ball playing. One afternoon after a tennis class, her fashionably crinkled hair still dripping from a recent shower, Ostrowski lamented, "I'm living in sweats. I never get to wear regular clothes anymore." And don't bother to ask if she has any hobbies. "Oh, I like to cook, if ever I get a chance," she says. It might be better if she never gets an opportunity, according to a teammate, who says, "She can't cook. Once she made pancakes that were supposed to come out really thin. They were an inch thick."
Even so, the Lady Vols should be cooking all the way to No. 1 this year. The other high school All-Americas in Head Summitt's stable are Guard Pat Hatmaker, Guard Mina Todd and Forward Tanya Haave, who also plays volleyball for Tennessee. Ostrowski is the only freshman who will crack the starting lineup, which includes Noble at center, Debbie Groover at forward and 5'4¾" "Little Lea" Henry at guard. Susan Clower will line up beside Henry, who, Like Ostrowski, spent her summer playing on a U.S. team that participated in a tournament in Taiwan.
Two-time defending champion Old Dominion has some spots to fill, what with losing Nancy What's Her Name and Center Inge Nissen to graduation. But the Lady Monarchs still have 6'8" Anne Donovan, who scored 17 points a game last season as a freshman. And 6'5" freshman Janet Davis from Alta Loma, Calif. provides some size up front. To win three titles in a row, however, Davis and ODU's yearlings must develop in a hurry, because Forward Jan Trombly, a senior, who suffered a knee injury last season, may be slow coming back to the lineup.
Rutgers, 28-5 in 1979-80, has seven players back plus a newcomer, Guard Lorrie Lawrence, whom Coach Theresa Shank Grentz calls the finest recruit around. Lawrence, from Morristown, N.J., was not heralded nationally, but she's a superquick ball handler who should build a big reputation fast. The Lady Knights also have 6'4" Center Kris Kirchner, a transfer from Maryland.
Louisiana Tech has every starter back from the only team that beat Old Dominion last season, while at Kansas Lynette Woodard hopes to become a four-time All-America. Last year she had averages of 23.8 points and 10.5 rebounds and paced the Jayhawks to a 25-8 record. Woodard will get plenty of help: 5'11" senior Forward Shebra Legrant averaged 15.7 points a game and the freshman contingent includes high school All-Americas Mary Myers and Tracy Claxton. At Southern Cal, Coach Linda Sharp will be seeing double on the Trojans' fast break. Identical twins Pam and Paula McGee led their Flint (Mich.) Northern High team to a pair (what else?) of unbeaten seasons. They could take USC to its second-ever postseason tournament.
South Carolina is high on 6'6" Philicia Allen, a freshman who averaged 26 points and 19 rebounds as a senior at Florida's Okeechobee High.
Penn State's new coach, Rene Portland, claims she's going to turn the school into "the Eastern capital of women's basketball," which is what a lot of people thought Old Dominion was. To help do the job, the Lady Lions have 6'3" Mary Donovan and Guard Corinne Gulas returning to the lineup. Gulas' twin sister, Chris, is recovering from knee surgery and should be available in January.
Long Beach State imported senior Forward Sharon Carroll (22.7 points and 14.7 rebounds per game) from the University of Illinois and picked up 6'4" freshman Center Nina Leonard from Chicago to add size to the front line. LaTaunya Pollard, a sophomore guard, led the 49ers in scoring last year with 19.4 points a game. UCLA's 6'1" senior Denise Curry has scored 2,268 points in her career, an average of 28.6. Jeanne Beauprey is also back for the Bruins, and Cheryl Kelsey, the 5'9" high school Player of the Year from Vancouver, British Columbia, is one of six freshmen who could help get UCLA back near the top.
Determined effort is just one Mo reason that Ostrowski is outstanding.
THE TOP 10
2. OLD DOMINION
3. LOUISIANA TECH
6. SOUTHERN CAL
7. SOUTH CAROLINA
8. LONG BEACH STATE
9. PENN STATE