Elaine Elliott is looking forward to her 25th season at the helm of the Utah women's basketball program.
The latest edition of the Utes, she said, has shown purpose, vision and a good work ethic in practice.
"We've got a pretty bright view of things right now," Elliott said. "I really enjoy coaching them. It feels real good, and I thank them. I really appreciate that they are so fun to coach."
Adding to the enjoyment is the addition of senior point guard Leilani Mitchell. The transfer from Idaho earned all-America recognition as a junior.
"She's as good as the credentials. She deserves it. She's very good," Elliott said. "She will just produce so much offense for us because of her skill. She can score and create opportunities for others."
Utah didn't get a lot of notice at the Mountain West Conference's preseason meetings. The Utes were picked to finish fifth and didn't receive a single first-place vote from the 30 media members and coaches who participated in the preseason poll.
"I've never had an opinion on it no matter what it is," said Elliott, who considers it just something to talk about it. "Being first doesn't help you win it, and being picked fifth doesn't make you lose it.
"It's obviously very unimportant. You have to earn what you get," she added. "By finishing fifth last year, you've got to earn your way back up again."
Morgan Warburton was named to the all-conference team, and Mitchell was tabbed as the league's "Newcomer of the Year" at the preseason meetings.
Warburton led the Utes with 15.8 points per game last season and is one of the nation's best free-throw shooters. Mitchell is considered one of the premier point guards in the country.
Sophomore forward Kalee Whipple is another player to watch. She averaged 10.8 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds last year.
Senior Jessica Perry, junior Deanne Stevenson and sophomores Halie Sawyer and Hennasea Tokumura round out the returnees. Stevenson is back in the fold after missing all of last season with knee injuries.
"They're all a year better," said Elliott, whose team went 19-14 last season and reached the second round of the WNIT.
The upcoming campaign is a transition year, of sorts, for the Utes. They're moving on without seven players from last year's team.
Heidi Carlsen, Shauna Murphy and Camie Oakey have graduated. Joh-Teena Filipe, Brette Ulsaker, Marie Warner and Lydia Whitehead opted to transfer.
Filipe has enrolled at Fresno State; Ulsaker is at Washburn (Kan.); Warner moved to Canisius (N.Y.); and Whitehead headed north to Utah State.
Other than leaving the program with low numbers 10 healthy players going into the season Elliott said it really hasn't hurt the Utes.
"It's ended up being good in terms of how things feel and opportunities for the kids that are here," she explained. "They've worked and deserved those opportunities. So I'm really pretty happy for that. We feel good about the kids that we have. And I feel like we're an improved team."
Headlining the replacements are Mitchell and junior college All-American Katie King of SLCC. Cydney Knight (Richland HS, Wash.) and Jose McDermott (Ashland HS, Ore.) join the Utes from the high school ranks.
The Utes open the season with four consecutive games in the Huntsman Center. After exhibitions against Montana Western (Nov. 3) and Fort Lewis (Nov. 6), they'll host UC Irvine (Nov. 15) and Stanford (No. 18).
Other notable preseason games include a trip to the Oahu Classic (Nov. 22-24) and road games at Fresno State (Dec. 1), USC (Dec. 3) and Minnesota (Dec. 8). The home slate includes visits by Utah State (Dec. 15) and Weber State (Dec. 21).Utah's conference opener is Jan. 9 at Air Force. The Utes will face rival BYU on Jan. 19 in Provo and Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City.
4 questions for the Utes
• Can senior transfer Leilani Mitchell pick up where she left off as an all-American at Idaho?
• Is Utah picked to finish fifth the dark horse in the Mountain West Conference race?
• How will the team handle the transfer of four players in the offseason?• Will Morgan Warburton and Kalee Whipple improve on last season's success?