Wecker, McCarville step into spotlight

Certainly, LSU junior Seimone Augustus is already off to a great start, and some folks might be ready to hand her all the player-of-the-year trophies now.

While she might indeed end up getting them -- and is quite deserving of all the attention she's receiving as the season begins -- there are other players who should get some big-time spotlight, too. It's quite possible that they'll be in the thick of the running for the ultimate individual awards by season's end.

Connecticut fans are ready to make their cases for juniors Barbara Turner and Ann Strother. Tennessee fans will be in senior Shyra Ely's corner. Notre Dame will raise the banner for senior Jaqueline Batteast. And, since this might be a season of some surprises as far as team success, there are almost sure to be some individual players who'll step forward even more than we might guess now.

But here, I want to talk about two players who, in some ways, have a lot in common. They are both seniors who for their first three seasons were in the shadow of an All-American a year older than them. They are both emotionally intense athletes; the kind whose kettles can go from low-boil to screaming pretty quickly ... and yet, away from the heat of competition, they revert to off-court personalities that are opposite. One is happy-go-lucky and extroverted; the other is quiet, laid back and introspective.

Both will have the same challenge and opportunity this season: Most people expect their teams won't be as good as they were last year. And this is their chance to show how much weight they can carry.

Both start their seasons Friday: Kendra Wecker leads Kansas State at home against Wyoming and Janel McCarville, her broken left hand mended, will be back for Minnesota as it faces Arkansas State in Minneapolis.

Kansas State's Nicole Ohlde and Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen were the biggest names for their teams the past three years and both had outstanding WNBA rookie seasons this summer. Now it's time to see how their replacements as team stars do.

McCarville, a 6-foot-2 center from Stevens Point, Wis., missed the Gophers' two exhibition games and the WBCA Classic at Washington. There, Minnesota beat Mountain West Conference preseason favorite UNLV 77-69 but lost to the host Huskies 72-67.

With McCarville back, of course, Minnesota is a far different team. She made her case as an elite center quite powerfully last March and April. Who else in the history of the women's NCAA Tournament has looked as jaw-droppingly dominant as she did on the boards for such a sustained stretch?

Along with that, people saw her "finesse" skills, which are so creative and natural you know that this is somebody who was just born to play entertaining basketball. The knock, if you will, on McCarville was always that she'd let anger get the best of her on court and that she didn't work as hard as she needed to off court. But last season, McCarville showed the heart, fire and determination that elevated her to the Kodak All-America team and helped the Gophers make the Final Four.

And people found out about McCarville the person. They read how her mom, Bonnie, was battling cancer and considered her "little girl" -- the youngest of five children -- an amazing joy in her life. (The report from Minnesota is that Bonnie McCarville is doing well now.) Folks discovered what a funny, interesting kid McCarville was.

But as great as it was to see Minnesota's run through the NCAA Tournament last season, part of it cost everyone a chance to see someone else at her best: Wecker.

In one of the selection committee's biggest blunders last season, Kansas State as a No. 2 seed was treated like yesterday's garbage. The Wildcats were sent to the guillotine of playing the first and second rounds at Minnesota's Williams Arena. It's the kind of thing that would never happen in men's basketball and shouldn't still be happening in the women's game.

For Wecker, a 5-11 forward of great power and versatility, it was an extremely painful night against the Gophers. She fouled out of the second-round loss with 7 minutes, 15 seconds left and scored just eight points. Of course, the year before, she also struggled in the NCAA second round -- and that was on the Wildcats' home court. Wecker had 10 points in the 2003 loss to Notre Dame.

A hard truth about sports is that players sometimes are judged on a few highlighted games and not their sum total of excellence. Which is why Wecker fans -- who are spread throughout the entirety of Big 12 country -- hope to see her finally receive her due this season.

Wecker didn't get Big 12 freshman of the year honors in 2002 despite leading all league rookies in scoring and rebounding. Instead it went to Texas' Heather Schreiber.

Wecker's sophomore season, she was even better. She established herself as a 3-point threat while still playing power forward. She led the Wildcats in scoring that season, but Ohlde won Big 12 player of the year and made the Kodak All-American team. Last season, Ohlde got those same honors again -- and the truth is they could just as well have gone to Wecker.

But Wecker has dealt very well with all of that. She and Ohlde are both north-central Kansas natives, good friends with similar roots -- they are in fact, related going way back on their mothers' sides of their families. Wecker has never been anything but complimentary of Ohlde. As Missouri coach Cindy Stein put it, "Wecker is an unbelievable player, but the other big thing about her is she's a really great teammate."

Wecker loves being part of a team, even though her athleticism has always made her stand out. It brought her national attention at age 12 in 1995, when she became the first girl to make the finals of the NFL's Punt, Pass and Kick competition. She finished second -- and is still a bit irritated about shanking her punt, which cost her first place -- and made a commercial for the NFL.

Back then, she couldn't grasp what the fuss was about. She was just playing football, the sport she loved most and ruled on the playgrounds of her hometown of Marysville, Kan. But thanks to Wecker opening a door, now millions of girls have competed in PP&K.

Wecker has spent her whole life being a phenom in the small-town Midwest landscape, where there's still a lot of social pressure in regard to how talented girls, especially, are "supposed" to act. They're always expected to be humble, friendly and approachable. And Wecker always is.

She sometimes likes to be alone for hours, just playing her guitar or watching TV or thinking. But when she needs to be "KENDRA WECKER!" for the adoring children at Bramlage Coliseum or the beaming old folks who see her in Wal-Mart, she does that, too.

Kansas State senior guard Laurie Koehn knows both Wecker and McCarville . She and Wecker started playing AAU ball
together when they were youngsters, and they've been roommates/housemates in college. Koehn and McCarville were roommates when they played together on the U.S. Pan Am Games team in 2003.

"They're not very much alike ... Janel is very outgoing, is never quiet and Kendra is more reserved, likes to be by herself more," Koehn said.

"Whereas with Janel, if you want a moment by yourself, you're not going to get it if she's your roommate. It's always 'What are you doing? Where are you going?' constantly. She's hilarious, one of the most fun people I've ever been around."

But where they are alike, Koehn said, is in competitiveness. Koehn talks about teaching McCarville how to play a card game when they were at the Pan Am Games in Cuba, then pairing with her against U.S. teammates Turner of UConn and Iciss Tillis of Duke.

"Janel didn't know what she was doing very well, and she kept underbidding her hand -- really bad," Koehn said, cracking up. "So we were underbidding like crazy -- not on purpose -- and they got really mad and ended up throwing the cards down and leaving. And Janel's like, 'What? What's wrong?' She had no idea.

"And then she got mad, too, and I was trying to calm her down. Kendra's like that, too -- when it comes to competitive stuff, they both can get pretty hot. But, really, they're both very nice people."

And like anyone who has watched them play, Koehn's excited to see this season as a stage for them.

"Janel is a total stud. And so is Kendra," Koehn said. "Definitely, this should be a really big year for those two."

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.