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Miami Hurricanes women’s basketball looks to new on-court leader

The University of Miami women’s basketball team gathered at 6 a.m. on Aug. 28 for an annual rite of passage: the dreaded preseason fitness test. It is a chance for Coach Katie Meier and her staff to see who is game-ready, who worked out in the summer and who needs extra time in the gym.

As part of the grueling test, players have to sprint six times in a row from the baseline to the opposite free-throw line in 65 to 68 seconds, depending on their position. They get a minute break, and then they have to do it all over again. And again. And again. Four sets.

Meier wasn’t sure what to expect from Morgan Stroman. The former McDonald’s High School All-American was seven months removed from surgery to repair a torn left Achilles’ tendon, an injury that ended her junior season in January.

So, imagine the coach’s surprise when Stroman was one of only five players who passed the test on the first try.

“I cried like a baby,’’ Meier said. “Stro did that by sheer force of will. It was so impressive. She is special, and seeing her do that gave me great hope for this season. These players want it bad.’’

The Hurricanes reached No. 5 in the nation last season. They finished with a 26-6 record and second in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 14-2 record. Seniors Shenise “Moe’’ Johnson and Riquna “Bay-Bay’’ Williams were among the top players in the nation. The Canes entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed, and with very high hopes. But Williams was suspended on the eve of the Tournament for an outburst in practice and behavior detrimental to the team. UM lost in the second round to Gonzaga.

“I know there were high expectations of us last year, but things happened and we can’t change that,’’ Stroman said. “Now, it’s our turn. We played behind the other seniors so many years, and now we are the leaders. It brings me back to my high school days, when I was a leader. I am a little jittery but very eager to get out there. I can’t wait for the first game [Nov. 5].’’

Stroman, Stefanie Yderstrom and Pepper Wilson are senior co-captains this season, and they feel they have unfinished business. After years deferring to Johnson and Williams, it is their turn to take charge. Yderstrom, the steady Swede, keeps the team calm and settled. Stroman brings energy, spirit, and humor. Wilson acts as team mom, helping younger players with on and off-field concerns.

The pollsters certainly have respect for the returning Hurricanes, as they ranked UM No. 23 and No. 24 in two preseason polls.

“When Bay and Moe were playing 35 minutes, these other players weren’t really in green-light mode, they didn’t have that pressure, but now it’s on them,’’ Meier said. “They used to look to Bay and Moe first, but now they’re gone and everyone else has to step up. I’m not worried because we have tremendous talent.’’

She is eager to see how her freshman fit in — Caprise Dennis (5-9 guard), Keyona Hayes (6-1 forward) and Macy Keen (6-6 center).

Stroman is determined to end her UM career on a high note. “When I got here, the team wasn’t very good, and now we’re ranked, on a 40-game home win streak, and people come to our games. We have Tennessee and Penn State coming to play us at home. We’ve come a long way, and I feel I helped build this program, but there’s more we can do.’’

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