West Liberty University head women's basketball coach Lynn Ullom expects his Hilltoppers to rebound from last season's very average15-15 campaign and he's not alone as the West Virginia Conference have picked West Liberty third in their annual preseason poll.
There is reason for optimism on the hilltop but the veteran coach - 431-199 (.684) as he heads into his 23rd season - knows there are plenty of potholes to avoid on the road back to the top.
There's good news and bad news on the injury front. Senior forwards Meghan Wiseman and Jordan Stacey - key starters on WLU's 2011 Atlantic Region semifinalists - return after sitting out last winter as medical redshirts.
Unfortunately, Mattison Chilton, a 6-foot junior who also missed last year with knee surgery, was injured again and will sit out this season, as well. Sophomore guard Chelsea Bradley (6.1 ppg.) will also be forced to redshirt after a season-ending injury in the preseason.
Wiseman and Stacey join a solid nucleus of returning players and a promising group of talented newcomers in a quest to prove that last year's middle of the pack WVIAC finish was an aberration.
"We have to find out if our veterans who were coming back from medical redshirts will be able to perform at their previous level," Ullom said. "Also, some of our newcomers will have to fill key roles so we need to see how quickly they can make the transition from high school to college basketball.
"We're used to competing for championships around here and I like our talent level. I think we can have a good season."
The Hilltoppers should be solid up front as Wiseman and Stacey combined for nearly 19 points and 14 rebounds a night two years ago. They join returning 6-1 senior starter Emily Blevins (11.5 ppg., 7.4 rpg.).
Second-team All-WVIAC guard Hillary Southworth (16.1 ppg., 5.2 rpg.) will have to shoulder much of the perimeter scoring load as Kayla Ayers, a first-team All-WVIAC pick and the nation's leading 3-point shooter, was one of three starting guards lost to graduation.
Bri Kamarec (4.9 ppg.), another 5-9 sophomore, will fill one of the guard spots and 5-9 sophomore Julie Young should see her minutes increase.
Newcomers include four true freshmen and a transfer. Jenn Mohney, a 5-10 junior guard, spent the last two years on Wheeling Jesuit's nationally ranked volleyball team but played basketball with Southworth on a state-ranked Ohio high school team and could help right away.
The four freshmen - 5-8 Liz Flowers, a four-time all-stater and 2,000-point scorer from Williamstown; 5-6 Jasmin Kiley, a first-team All-Nevada Class AAAA pick and Gatorade Player of the Year finalist from Las Vegas; 5-4 Janay Bottoms, a two-time Pittsburgh City League Player of the Year and the 2012 Roundball Classic MVP; and 5-10 Kierra "Kiki" Simpson, a first-team All-City post from Columbus, Ohio - have definitely made preseason drills more interesting.
Flowers cracked the starting lineup for the season opener and several others could earn extended minutes. Bottoms, an electrifying playmaker, will redshirt this year.
Mike Drahos returns for his fifth season as Ullom's top assistant. Also back are part-time assistant coaches Mark Crow and Joe Key.