By Brian Howard
With six returning letterwinners, including a pair of All-Peach Conference starters, the Clayton State women's basketball program has put itself in position to defend its 2004-05 Peach Belt Conference Championship and Tournament Championship titles.
The Lady Lakers begin their season 3 p.m. today in the Wachovia Tip-Off Classic.
In a three-team field, Clayton State meets Brewton-Parker, ranked No. 11 in NAIA Division I, today and South East Region opponent Elizabeth City State 3 p.m. Sunday.
“The other thing that scares me about Brewton-Parker, besides how good they are, is that the NAIA start playing games Nov. 1,” Clayton State women's coach Dennis Cox said. “We start Nov. 15. Last year when they beat us in the championship game, they were 6-0 coming into the tournament. I don't know what I was thinking when I scheduled them for the first game, but that's going to be a real challenge.
“Elizabeth City on Sunday is a region opponent, which makes that a real important game for regional ranking purposes.”
Cox, who enters his second season at Clayton State, will try to duplicate last year's magical run, as he turned around the Lady Lakers' program and put it on the national map.
Clayton State finished with a school-best 25-7 record to go along with its first championship titles and its first appearance in the NCAA Division II National Tournament. Clayton State fell in the second round of the tournament to Carson-Newman, 75-61.
Last year's improvement was the second-biggest turnaround in NCAA Division II, going from 10-18 in 2003-04 to the 25-7 mark last season.
“Something I learned last year, you can win with heart,” Cox said. “It's nice to have talent, but heart and character are what makes the difference is what wins championships. That team last year had it.”
The Lady Lakers, picked to finish ninth last year, enter the 2005-06 season in unfamiliar territory - picked to finish second in the league.
Columbus State was chosen to win the conference.
Two Peach Belt Conference teams left the league in the offseason to make the move to Division I - Kennesaw State and North Florida. North Georgia is the only team added to the league, which will not have divisions this season, because the Peach Belt Conference has 11 teams. The league added Southwestern State University Thursday, but the school won't be eligible for conference play until the 2006 season begins.
The Lady Lakers' top two returnees will be All-Peach Belt Conference forwards Shelcey Harp and Jasmine Patterson.
Harp and Patterson ranked among the Peach Belt Conference leaders in scoring, field-goal percentage and 3-point field-goal percentage last year. Patterson was named MVP of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament after scoring a school-record 35 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in an overtime game against Columbus State in the tournament title game.
Clayton State will have to replace three starters, most notably, All-Peach Belt Conference player Jamika Hindsman, who led the club in scoring (14.6 points), steals (102) and assists (120).
Returning to the Lady Lakers are: Guard Carlie Anderson (4.3 points), guard Basia Bukowska (4.2 points), forward Cynthia Conseil (3.1 points) and guard Marie St. Fort, who blew her knee out over the summer (2.8 points).
“We have a lot of new players, and we're still getting to know them and they're still getting to know the system,” Cox said. “The ingredients are there (players coming back). Coach K at Duke calls it 'searching for the heart.' And we're still searching.”
Along with Clayton State's top two incoming recruits in JUCO All-Region players shooting guard Roberta Phillips and forward Sharon Wiles, the Lady Lakers will have an improved inside game with the addition of a pair of 6-foot-3 posts in Alecia Humphrey and Tracey Browne.
Phillips averaged 18.6 points, eight rebounds, 2.5 assists and 3.6 steals per game, while Wiles averaged 17.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.6 steals. Humphrey received All-Southern Conference honors, averaging 12.3 points, eight rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.1 blocks, while Browne averaged 6.4 rebounds and shot 49.5 percent from the floor.
Riverdale's Kim Lloyd will also be a key contributor to the team, Cox said, as the 5-foot junior guard transferred from Georgia Southwestern.
“We don't have the depth I was hoping to have,” Cox said. “We had some things happened to us that are going to affect us this year. I still think we're going to be OK, but we had a chance for awhile to be special.
“We lost a returner in August (to an injury). We then had a six-foot post player from California that left us eight days after school started. Then probably our best junior college transfer has an eligibility issue that is probably not going to get sorted out.”
Cox also has some new personal helping him.
Last season, the first-year coach had assistants Kate Kauffman, Alison Cox and Catreia Shaw. This year, Cox has two former players and a full-time assistant helping him - Kaleena Coleman, April Taylor and Shannon Reid.
Reid spent last season with a Peach Belt Conference school - USC Aiken - and brings a lot of knowledge, hard work and determination to the table, Cox said.
After the Wachovia Tip-Off Classic this weekend, the Lady Lakers play three straight games on the road, including their first Peach Belt Conference opponent - Armstrong Atlantic State (Nov. 30).
Clayton State returns home Dec. 3 against Georgia College & State University.