By Doug Gorman
When the Clayton State Lady Lakers take the floor at home tonight against Albany State in a 7:30 p.m. tip off, it will be with high expecations.
Head coach Dennis Cox is just ready to see his team in action in a game that counts.
"It's going to be good to play against somebody that doesn't wear orange and blue," Cox said after watching his team practice since the middle of October,
The closet thing the Lady Lakers have come to game situations are exhibitions against the University of Georgia and LaGrange.
Now, it's time to see if Clayton State can live up to all the preseason hype.
The Lady Lakers have turned into an NCAA Division II power in Cox's five years on the Morrow campus, becoming regular visitors to the postseason tournament.
Three years ago, the Lady Lakers earned the school's first-ever trip to the Final Four. Cox's Lady Lakers followed that up with a visit to the Sweet 16 in 2007-08.
More success followed last year, including a trip to the Eite 8, and a 26-7 record, CSU's fifth straight year with 20 or more wins. When the dust settled, the Lady Lakers were ranked 11th in the country in the final Division II poll.
Despite all the team's recent success, Cox isn't taking anything for granted heading into his sixth year, especially after losing three starters and four other key players to graduation, Marie St. Fort, Shanrika Hardeman and Lisa Jackson combined for more than 26 points per game season as starters.
Cox will lean heavily on a five returning players, including two starters and seven newcomers to keep the success going.
Lesherian Steven brings her 9.4 scoring average into her senior year, but it will be at least January before she steps back on the court after undergoing knee surgery.
Sophomore Brittany Hall returns after starting last year and averaging 8.2 points per game.
Jane'e Jamison (1.7 PPG) and Tanisha Woodward (7.3) are expected to see action for the Lady Lakers. Jorane Metelus, who was redshirted last year, is battling injuries again for the Lady Lakers and will miss early games.
Newcomers include LaDe'Sja Stoudamire, sister of Phoenix Suns All-Star Amare Stoudemire, Ashley Aker, LaTondra Bruce, Breanna Fort, Geneis Kelly, Teshymia Tilman, and Timethia Bennett, who played basketball at Mundy's Mill before originally enrolling at Lincoln Memorial University.
Although Clayton State is opening the season a week later than many of its opponents, Cox thinks the wait might be good.
"When you have as many newcomers as we do, I don't think waiting a week will hurt," he said. "It give us more time to work on things."
The next few weeks will be a busy time Clayton State. This weekend the team travels to Florida to participate Friday and Saturday in the Rollings Thanksgiving Classic. The Lady Lakers will play Rollins and Nova Southestern.
"It's a good tournament," Cox said. "I'm from Florida, and we have several players from Florida, so this will be a little bit of a homecoming for us."
The Lakers come home to open the Peach B Belt Conference on December 5 at UNC Pembroke. The Lady Lakers play Carson Newnan at home (December 12) before hitting the road for a second confererence game (December 15).
Two other tournaments are also on the CSU slate in December as it plays in the OrtoCarolina Classic at Wingate (December 18-19), and then host Brewton-Parker and Lenior Rhnye (December 29-30) to close out the 2009 portion of the schedule.