Women's Weekend Awaits
The WUSA title game looms and the WNBA regular season is coming down to the wire. Do you know the players making news?
You may not know it, but this is a big weekend in women's sports. The WUSA's third championship takes place on Sunday in San Diego, as Washington meets Atlanta in Founders Cup III. Meanwhile, the WNBA regular season concludes Monday, and it's going to be a wild weekend in the Eastern Conference. The Detroit Shock are locked in as the top seed, but only 1.5 games separates third-place New York from sixth-place Indiana. And Charlotte -- currently second -- New York, Cleveland, Connecticut and Indiana spend the weekend playing each other.
And 31 years afer the passage of Title IX, and there's little doubt that the legislation is directly responsible for the existence of both the WNBA and WUSA. With that in mind, here are nine names worth knowing before the weekend gets underway.
Charmaine Hooper, Atlanta Beat
First the nation's capital, then the entire country? Charmaine Hooper could stage her own soccer invasion in the next few weeks. Sunday, Hooper leads the Atlanta Beat against the Washington Freedom in Founders Cup III, where one team will walk away as WUSA champions. The striker led Atlanta in goals for the third season in a row and tied for fourth among league leaders. And mere weeks later, Hooper faces an even more daunting task in leading the Canadian women against the rest of the world at the World Cup. The team failed to advance in either of the two most recent World Cups but appears poised to move on after being drawn into a group with powerhouse Germany and marginal sides Japan and Argentina.
Abby Wambach, Washington Freedom
She's not yet as well known as her teammate Hamm, unless you're talking to defenders in the WUSA. Wambach is the leading goal scorer active in Sunday's final with 13 regular-season tallies, good enough for second overall behind Philadelphia's Marinette Pinchon and Boston's Dagny Mellgren. The 2002 WUSA Rookie of the Year after a record-breaking career at the University of Florida, Wambach led the Freedom in goals and assists in her first season and then expanded her goal-scoring exploits in her sophomore campaign. Hamm clearly isn't ready to pass the torch as the game's elite player, but that just means Wambach has more time to learn from the best.
Mia Hamm, Washington Freedom
One of the few names able to transcend women's sports and earn name recognition across the broadest spectrum of sports fans, Hamm is the face of women's soccer, and arguably of women's sports. There's little reason to again chronicle Hamm's past accomplishments, but there's every reason to point out that the present and future are just as bright. After battling injuries in recent years -- including knee surgery prior to the 2002 WUSA season -- Hamm was back at full strength this summer. Demonstrating a veteran's willingness to rely on teammates, Hamm led the league in assists and tied with teammate Abby Wambach for the lead in points.
Briana Scurry, Atlanta Beat
Both Washington and Atlanta have experienced the pressure of playing in the Founders Cup, but neither team has any experience winning the game. And in a contest likely to be long on defense with two teams wary of making untimely mistakes, wouldn't you want the league's best keeper on your side? Scurry led the league in goals-against average with a 0.95 average, considerably better than her next-closest competitor at 1.21. You probably remember Scurry as the starting keeper for the 1999 World Cup team, a position she's set to reclaim for the upcoming tournament.
Allison Feaster, Charlotte Sting
Allison Feaster is a perfect leading lady for a team with as much balance as anyone in the league. The unassuming assassin from Harvard doesn't have the name recognition of teammate Dawn Staley or the experience and scoring mentality of teammate Andrea Stinson, but she's the engine behind Charlotte's drive for the playoffs. Stinson's career blossomed after she arrived from Los Angeles prior to the 2001 season, and her progress continues this season with career-best averages in points, assists and steals, all while shooting 35 percent from 3-point territory. Entering the weekend, the Sting are in the best position of the five Eastern Conference teams fighting for three playoff spots alongside top-seeded Detroit. But with games remaining against fellow playoff wannabes Connecticut, New York and Cleveland, the Sting must still play their own way in or out of the postseason.
Shannon Johnson, Connecticut Sun
Nagging injuries mean the point guard known as "Pee Wee" won't be at her best for the final weekend of the regular season, but even 75 percent of Johnson is critical to Connecticut's playoff hopes. The Sun find themselves a half-game behind New York for the final playoff spot with games remaining against Charlotte, Washington and Indiana. Johnson's scoring average has dropped this season as Nykesha Sales shoulders more of the load for the former Orlando franchise, but the she's likely to finish the season with a career-best assists average. Similar to Allen Iverson in her quickness and willingness to take a beating in driving to the bucket, Johnson may be the most exciting point guard in the WNBA.
Tamika Catchings, Indiana Fever
It will take a miracle for the Fever to leap from sixth place to fourth place in the season's final weekend. Luckily, there's something distinctly heavenly about Catchings' game. She ranks among the top 10 in points per game, rebounds per game, steals per game and blocks per game. And she's 13th in assists per game. All this from a player in her second year and only three years removed from major knee surgery. You should know Catchings because the most complete player in the women's game. You may know her after this weekend as a miracle worker.
LaToya Thomas, Cleveland Rockers
The top pick in this year's draft struggled in the first half of the season, but she could finish it by leading the Rockers to the playoffs. Despite moving almost immediately from the college season at Mississippi State to the pro season with Cleveland, Thomas is getting stronger as the year progresses. Her development is a major reason why the Rockers were able to sneak back into the playoff race after finding themselves 11-13 at the end of July. Thomas teams with Penny Taylor and Chastity Melvin to form a frontcourt that no team in the East can match. Entering the weekend, Thomas had averaged 13.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals in the team's last eight games. With games remaining against Indiana and Charlotte, Cleveland playoff destiny is in their own hands. And that means the ball may be in Thomas' hands.
Elena Baranova, New York Liberty
The Liberty's offense is run by Teresa Weatherspoon and runs through Tari Phillips and sharpshooters Vickie Johnson and Crystal Robinson, but to survive the final weekend with a playoff berth intact, they need to find Elena Baranova. Returning to the WNBA after a one-year hiatus in her native Russia, Baranova found herself on a new team and in a new system after the demise of the Miami Sol franchise. And for the first half of the season, Baranova looked a little like an afterthought in the Big Apple despite having been an All-Star with Miami. But with guard Becky Hammon felled by a torn ACL, the Liberty have been making use of their newfound post threat. Averaging just 8.7 points this season, Baranova has upped that to 13.4 in the team's last five games.