Coach Linda Hargrove has to make tough choices on roster soon

Forward DeMya Walker injured her knee last year and, coincidentally, the Portland Fire never recovered.

With Walker, the Fire started the season 8-4. By the time she returned, the Fire were well on their way to ending the season with 10 consecutive losses.

'The team was a whole last year,' center Sylvia Crawley says. 'It affected the whole.'

Aw, Walker responded, 'she's such a sweet person.'

It is true, though. In the 6-foot-3 Walker, the Fire have one of those players who help keep the team together, a glue, because she does all the dirty work better than others. She rebounds, defends and blocks shots. She runs like a deer, too.

Although Linda Hargrove, the coach and general manager, has difficult decisions on whom to keep from among five or six 'bubble players,' the athletically gifted Walker is solidly in the team's plans.

Expect Walker or Kristin Folkl to start at power forward and the other to get significant minutes off the bench.

'She brings so much energy to the team,' Folkl says of Walker, who was dancing in the locker room after the Fire's 99-72 win Wednesday over the Chinese National Team. 'See, case in point.'

Too many post possibilities

It used to be a challenge for Walker to make the Fire roster, let alone start. Walker is one of six original Fire players still around Ñ not including Tully Bevilaqua, who will rejoin the team soon from Europe. Walker made the expansion Fire after being an assigned free agent two years ago and averaged 3.1 points and 1.6 rebounds.

Last year, she was well on her way to a breakout year when she tore the medial collateral ligament in her left knee. She averaged 5.4 points and 2.8 rebounds.

'She's been very productive,' Hargrove says. 'She's made progress every year. Her scoring is a bonus for us.'

Folkl says she doesn't mind playing off the bench, because 'I always play hard because I want to win.'

Walker says the same. 'I just wanted to come back better after last year,' she says.

Crawley, Walker and Folkl are three of seven center/power forward players in camp, and Hargrove wants to keep five. On the bubble to stick are Alisa Burras, Vanessa Nygaard, Jenny Mowe and rookie Amber Hall, as well as small forward Gergana Slavtcheva and guard Mandy Nightingale.

'Last year, we carried six post players, and we don't want to carry six again because it's tough to play them all,' Hargrove says.

Trade first, cut later

By the season opener May 29, the Fire must be down to 11 players, not including two on injured reserve and Bevilaqua.

'We'll try to trade some players before we have to cut them,' Hargrove says, 'but it's tough to make trades now. Teams are subtracting players, not adding them.'

Says Mowe, a 6-5 center: 'It's totally wide open. It's a matter of what the coaches are looking for. I think we have some of the better post players around Ñ six or seven of them Ñ and no doubt, who's cut will hook with another team. I'm not nervous, but you're always wondering.'

Walker and Folkl fit in because they play good defense, rebound and can run the fast break.

'She takes a lot of pride in her defense,' Folkl says of Walker, 'but she's very offensive-minded, too. Very athletic, very fast.'

Walker, 24, probably will survive her third training camp. She doesn't worry about it. 'I've got enough self-esteem, and I'm known for my defense,' she says. 'It's not necessarily a struggle to make the team, but at any given moment, it can be taken away from you. You can do your best, and it might not be good enough.'

NOTES: The Fire play the Sacramento Monarchs at 7 p.m. Sunday in an exhibition game at the Rose Garden. É Hargrove says the five-player shifts used in the first half Wednesday were indicative of how players stood on the depth chart: starters Ñ Ukari Figgs, Jackie Stiles, Walker, LaQuanda Barksdale, Crawley; second unit Ñ Tamicha Jackson, Carolyn Young, Folkl, Stacey Thomas, Burras; third unit Ñ Nightingale, Slavtcheva, Nygaard, Hall, Mowe. É The starters made 11 of 15 first-half shots to sprint to an early lead that the Fire never gave up. É Portland shot 60 percent and outrebounded China 40-21. É Stiles had 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting after scoring 14 in the first exhibition game. Crawley had 12 points and Folkl 11.

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