- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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WASHINGTON -- Last week, with defending WNBA champ Minnesota visiting the nation's capital, a confetti cake topped with pink icing sat on a counter in the Mystics' locker room. Post player Ashley Robinson, one of several new faces for Washington this season, baked it.
Was there something to celebrate? Not necessarily; A-Rob just likes to provide pregame sweets. But she's hoping to do more than that, though, for the Mystics. Robinson and fellow Tennessee grad Michelle Snow are trying to add to the team's interior presence.
While they are new to the Mystics, both have been around the WNBA for a long time: It's Snow's 11th season and Robinson's ninth. Another ex-SEC player, guard Dominique Canty from Alabama, has been in the league even longer. This is her fourth team in 14 seasons.
"I'm all about being positive at all times," Canty said. "With rookies, with veterans -- it doesn't matter. I tell people to keep their heads up. And that's a key ingredient, I guess you can say, to my game."
Certainly, Washington can use all the power of positive thinking it can get. The Mystics are off to a 1-4 start in 2012. That has them planted at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with 1-5 New York, which got its first victory of the season Sunday. The Mystics host the Liberty on Friday.
There are seven new Mystics: the aforementioned three longtime vets, plus forward Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and guards Noelle Quinn, Natasha Lacy and Natalie Novosel, the latter the Mystics' first-round draft choice in April.
This is what you do after a 6-28 season, right? Clean house, try to change the mojo.
"Last year was hard," said forward Crystal Langhorne, one of four players back from the 2011 Mystics roster along with Monique Currie (who missed most of last season with a knee injury), Matee Ajavon and Jasmine Thomas.
Will so many different faces really alter the Mystics' course? Can the veterans added actually help lift the team? Or are they more career role players who can maintain the status quo, but not significantly change it?
Gone from the franchise is Alana Beard, who was Washington's top draft pick in 2004 and led the team in scoring each season from 2005 to 2009. The past two years, though, Beard couldn't play in the WNBA because of a lingering severe ankle injury. A free agent, she left for a fresh start in Los Angeles in 2012.
Now the Mystics are attempting a fresh start themselves. If you've lost count of how many of those Washington has had, it's understandable. The Mystics are celebrating their 15th season in the league this year, but still waiting for their first WNBA finals appearance.
Trudi Lacey presides over the franchise that went from first in the East in 2010 to second-worst in the league in 2011 (Tulsa's 3-31 record claimed the anchor spot). Now, for better or worse, the team currently assembled in D.C. is the one that Lacey truly has put together.
She took over as coach/general manager in November 2010, when Mystics management parted ways with GM Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank despite the team just having finished atop the East for the first time.
For the sake of keeping everyone's blood pressure down, we won't thoroughly rehash that again. Suffice to say, it didn't make sense then and doesn't get any more logical in retrospect. Whether you intentionally or accidentally shoot yourself in the foot -- and the Mystics unfortunately have done both at times over the years -- the wound is still the same.
The Mystics figuratively were hopping around on one leg last year as the self-inflicted damage combined with key injuries. Something had to change.
"We brought in some long, lean posts in Ashley and Snow," said Langhorne, who has led Washington in scoring and rebounding the past two seasons. "We're better defensively this year. I think it's going to take time for us offensively. We're still learning there. That's going to come. But we're very aggressive."
It's a huge help, Langhorne says, just having Currie back.
"People may not realize how big a difference it is having her," Langhorne said. "Offensively, she's so aggressive, it always sets the tone for us. There are times where you can be passive, even if you don't want to be. But when you have Monique out there with you, it's always aggressive. You can even see that in shootaround."
Currie was Charlotte's first-round choice in 2006, drafted the day after her Duke team's gut-wrenching loss to then-sophomore Langhorne's Maryland Terrapins in the NCAA championship game.
The Sting folded after the 2006 season, though, and other than two games for Chicago, Currie has spent the rest of her WNBA career in a Mystics uniform. Last year was painful for her, rehabbing an ACL injury she suffered while playing overseas before the 2011 WNBA season, and watching Washington plummet to the bottom of the East.
"It was very difficult being out, but I try not to let things shape me negatively," Currie said. "It's like when I tore my ACL; I said: 'Let's just get the surgery done and the rehab going.' Things happen; you have to take what's given to you and play those cards.
"But being that it was such a tough season here in Washington last year, that made it more difficult because I couldn't contribute on the court."
Currie came back at season's end and played in four games. By then, 2011 was already a lost cause for the Mystics, but Currie wanted to test out her knee and prepare for the European season and her fully healthy WNBA return in 2012.
Whether Currie's presence -- and/or a combination of other things -- is enough to turn Washington back into a playoff team for 2012 remains to be seen.
Of course, then you have the murmuring of some of the Mystics' long-suffering fans. They are still lamenting how the organization seemingly imploded after all the success and promise of 2010, but the most devout of them still can't walk away. Pragmatically, they are looking to the 2013 draft. Can the Mystics possibly get one of the three coveted gems: Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne or Skylar Diggins?
Would that help bring back more of an air of excitement to the Verizon Center? Would the Mystics' real live bodies in the stands then come closer to matching their reported attendance? The franchise's many wounds have created scar tissue, but can it rehab itself once again?
Last week with Minnesota in town, Lynx veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin couldn't help but feel a bit melancholy about the relatively sparse gathering in D.C. that -- at least for the first half -- was pretty quiet. McWilliams-Franklin spent the bulk of the 2008 season playing for Washington and also has competed there as an opponent many times in her lengthy career.
"I'm kinda sad about the way the crowd looked," said McWilliams-Franklin, who's in her second season in Minnesota and was a big part of the Lynx' franchise-changing championship last year. "But I love D.C., and I always loved the fan support here. There are still 11 players for Washington playing as hard as they can. I hope the fans do come out more: They're a scrappy team. Winning solves a lot of problems, obviously. Minnesota went through that. Winning will get those former season-ticket holders back here at games again."
The Mystics players can't really dwell on the past. Nor can they fantasize about a better future. They only have this summer to work with. Langhorne and Currie both say the Mystics do have enough pieces of the puzzle to get a playoff spot if the team stays relatively healthy.
Is that the truth or hopeful fiction? It's hard to be completely sure. Take a game like Wednesday's against Minnesota. In the first half, the Lynx practically ran the Mystics right off the floor and led by 20 at the break.
But in the second half, Washington rallied. It took a putback by Lindsay Whalen with one second left to give Minnesota a 79-77 win. Admittedly, the Lynx seemed to get a little lethargic and careless in the third quarter to open the door for the Mystics. However, Washington did seize that opening.
So was that result against the league's best team more encouraging because the Mystics came back and pushed the Lynx to the wire? Or was it more frustrating because -- as was the case least year -- the Mystics didn't quite do enough to actually win?
"It's a mixture of both," Langhorne said. "Coming into the game, everybody probably thought they were going to win. Then we're down 20. And our fight back was great, but still at the end of the game we had breakdowns. A turnover here, a turnover there. Not getting a defensive rebound when we really needed it. So it's both."
Things didn't improve over the weekend, either, in the victory category for the Mystics. Friday, they lost for the second straight game by two points with the winning basket coming just before the buzzer. This time, it was Chicago's Sylvia Fowles who provided the dagger: a layup with 1.8 seconds left in the Sky's comeback from an eight-point deficit to win 65-63.
Sunday, the Mystics encountered a Connecticut team fueled by Tina Charles, who was upset at her fourth-quarter play in the Sun's loss Friday to still-flying-high Minnesota. Charles then took out her frustration on the Mystics to the tune of 30 points and nine rebounds, and Connecticut won 94-86.
Ultimately, Langhorne -- who led the Mystics with 25 points Sunday -- still believes there is hope. What else can she do but, as Canty suggests, keep her head up?
"I believe in D.C. and our organization," Langhorne said, and you've got to admire her valor. "Last year was rough, but I know we can win here."