Walker, Monarchs might be even better this summer

Let's start this one off with a hearty congratulations to Caitlin Snaring, the 14-year-old from Washington state who last week became the second girl ever to win the National Geographic Bee. Much as I loved the documentary "Spellbound," I think these geography whiz kids are even more impressive than the spelling phenoms.

It was especially great when a reporter asked Caitlin, who didn't miss a single question, if she had guessed on any, and she said, "I knew them all down pat."

So I took this geography quiz online that went with a story on Caitlin (who might become our president one day, save for the fact she might already be overqualified) and I got three of five right -- but totally guessed on two of the correct answers.

Oh, all right. I guessed on all three.

However, I displayed just a little geographic acumen myself last year when someone asked for directions, and I gave them. Which might not sound like much … except I was in Sacramento at the time.

How did a Midwesterner do this? Well, it's mostly thanks to all the times I've gone to see the Sacramento Monarchs play, including in the WNBA Finals the past two seasons. I've spent enough time in "Sacto" that it almost seems familiar. At least, I hope the directions were right. I'm probably just setting myself up for getting lost the next time I go.

The Monarchs would like to have us media folks back this postseason. Sacramento -- which has its home opener Saturday -- is led by a new coach in Jenny Boucek but is largely the same group of players that won the WNBA title in 2005 and had a "just missed" runner-up finish to Detroit in 2006.

"We've been close in the past, but I think we're even closer now," said Monarchs post DeMya Walker. "And talentwise, it seems like everybody has really worked on their game and tried to get themselves to a better level. You add that to the fact that we have a team that's very unselfish to the core -- nobody cares who the leading scorer is -- and Jenny is an extension of that. She fits well with the personality of our team."

Yolanda Griffith and Ticha Penicheiro are like those soap-opera matriarchs who just keep showing up on the set. The plot doesn't revolve around them the way it used to -- the "youngsters" carry more of the scenes, er, load -- but they're still the grand dames.

Kara Lawson continues to have the last laugh on anybody who thought she wasn't quick enough to make it in the WNBA. Nicole Powell is still thrilled to be out of Charlotte -- well, especially now, when there's no team there. Rebekkah Brunson is Yo Jr.; Kristin Haynie remains Penicheiro's solid understudy.

Walker is the next most experienced player behind Griffith and Penicheiro, and at 29 is in her prime. We'll get to a lot more on her in just a bit, as she is perhaps the linchpin of the Monarchs' success.

Scholanda Robinson joined the team in 2006 out of LSU. And like the immortal Shakespeare line about a rose by any other name smelling just as sweet, she has played great defense whether her last name has been Dorrell, Hoston or Robinson.

Speaking of names, Adrian Williams used to be "Adrain" but got tired of the misspelling and changed it. She's a veteran but one of the new faces for the Monarchs, who lost restricted free agent Erin Buescher to San Antonio.

Then there's Chelsea Newton, who is not a "new" face but a "renewed" face for Sacramento. She was a rookie starter on the 2005 title team, then was taken by Chicago in the expansion draft.

"When I got the call to say I was leaving, it was heartbreaking at first," Newton said. "Then I started to think about the positive things. It was an opportunity where I could work on my game and be a leader and just try to get better. It was a wonderful experience in Chicago, and I'm glad I went through it."

Just the same, she was even happier when the Sky -- which won five games in 2006 -- traded her back to the Monarchs in March. Newton, being a Rutgers grad, has been known primarily for her defense. She said in her time with Chicago, she worked particularly hard on offense and is a more complete player now for the Monarchs.

"It's a fairy-tale ending almost; you don't see things like this happen often," she said of her return to Sacramento. "Being able to come back and be part of such a great team -- I can't say enough. I smile every day. I'm just grateful to be here."

Walker is also very thankful to be where she is, and believes this could be a key summer in her career. She had her best season statistically in 2005, when she averaged 14.1 points and 5.3 rebounds. But she missed 12 games in the regular season and two in the playoffs with a right knee injury. Then last year, she missed 11 games at the start of the season after giving birth to her daughter.

Walker is one of those players, like Becky Hammon, who didn't get drafted because they were college seniors in 1999, the year all the former ABL players migrated to the WNBA. Walker was assigned to Minnesota, which waived her four days later -- yet another move that Lynx fans can rue in hindsight.

Since then, at Portland and Sacramento, Walker has proven to be a late-bloomer type, which isn't surprising since she really didn't start playing hoops until her freshman year in high school.

At Virginia, she played alongside Boucek but said it's not at all strange or difficult to have her former college teammate as her coach.

"When Jenny and I played together, I was a freshman and she was a senior," Walker said. "And (U.Va. coach) Debbie Ryan fully instilled in us who our captains were, who we had to listen to and who ran the show.

"Now I come into a situation where Jenny again runs the show. It's my job to follow the leader, the same as when I was in school."

(Incidentally, Seattle's Wendy Palmer was also one of the Cavaliers' captains that 1995-96 season … but don't expect Walker to show any deference to her on court when the Monarchs face the Storm.)

Walker spent the winter months competing again in Russia, where she'd played in the past. She considers herself more a defensive specialist overseas, but an all-around impact player in the WNBA.

"It's kind of a different role [in Russia], and it allows me to remember where I came from in this league. I came in through the back door as a free agent," she said. "One of the main things I look forward to [in the WNBA] is being in a bigger role, because I worked hard to get there. I'm very comfortable being one of the leaders on this team and being relied on.

"This is a special season for me, and I've really thought about it that way. I can blossom and be the player that I know I can be. I look at 2005 as my standard, because before I got hurt then, I was getting to where I wanted to be. That's my goal: to come out here and work hard and do the little things. Everything else will fall in line."

Of course, we're just getting this season started. It's a long ways down the road, but … if everything "falls in line" the way Walker and the Monarchs want it to, I'll be back in Sacramento in a few months. I don't think I'll need a map.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.