Nov. 8, 2006
Cullowhee, N.C. -
As Western Carolina begins year three of the Kellie Harper era, expectations are up after a strong finish to the 2005-06 season, winning five of eight to close the campaign. Over the past two years, Western has experienced the highs of winning the school's first-ever Southern Conference Championship in 2004-05 and the lows of a 20-loss season despite a brutal non-conference schedule a year ago.
"Last year's schedule was really tough, especially with the number of freshmen we had on the court. But our players want to play the best - they want to play the tough schedule and are not afraid to compete and see how they stack up against the tough opponents," said Harper. "We are hoping that our veterans learned from our season last year. Because of that outcome, our team is more motivated to work hard and improve each day together."
Keeping with the "to be the best, you have to play the best" mentality, Harper has again loaded the schedule with not only tough opponents, but also an uphill climb right out of the gates. After opening the season at home against the SEC's Auburn Tigers on Nov. 10, the Lady Catamounts embark on what amounts to an 11-game road swing that encompasses seven weeks and does not end until the second home date against Eastern Michigan on Dec. 30. WCU will also endure an 18-game, home-and-home SoCon schedule that begins in late December and concludes with the conference tournament in March.
"We are excited about the challenges ahead and hope that our pre-conference schedule prepares us for the very important SoCon games," Harper said. "Opening the season with Auburn in Cullowhee during an exciting weekend for everyone at Western is something we are looking forward to. Also, traveling to ACC opponents Wake Forest and Final Four participant, North Carolina, will present us with different challenges."
She added, "We have a long tough stretch of road games including a tournament at Xavier and Colorado State, but we're counting on it making us a better team. I like the early-season tournament settings to help give us a taste of what our SoCon tournament will be like. Although we want to be playing our best basketball in March, I hope we can have some early success this season even with our tough schedule."
Preseason predictions from the conference's head coaches pegged the Lady Catamounts fourth in the 10-team league behind favorite UNC Greensboro, Chattanooga, and Davidson. It is no secret that the success of this year's squad lies squarely on the shoulders of the eight returning players, seven of which took turns starting last season.
"Our returning players bring a very high intensity level. They have good work ethics, are coachable, competitive, and energetic. Even though we have experience at each position, we are still a young team with room for improvement," said Harper.
Highlighting the returning class are three players that have spent time among the league's elite over the past two seasons. Junior Monique Dawson garnered all-tournament team honors a year ago, while junior wing Chevon Keith was a preseason all-conference selection. The most decorated of the trio is sophomore Lauren Powell, who was dubbed the SoCon Freshman of the Year after leading WCU and all league freshmen in scoring a year ago. Powell, who was selected to the preseason all-conference team this season, is a 3-point shooting ace who has worked extremely hard in the off-season to find other ways to score and improve on the defensive end.
In addition to Dawson, her classmate, Ashley Pellom, will spend time running the point for Western. Pellom is on pace to rank as one of Western's all-time leaders in assists, entering her third season just 55 assists shy of the all-time top 10.
"Dawson and Pellom will set the tone for our team's defensive intensity. Their quickness allows them to create for themselves and their teammates. They will be our primary ball handlers this year," said Harper. "Wing players Chevon (Keith) and Lauren (Powell) are returning with experience and determination. Both of these players will have big roles offensively, as well as on the boards. Their size and strength gives them an advantage at their positions."
A couple of our players who saw limited time last year - due to injury and illness - but will be counted upon heavily this year are sophomore Kendra Eaton and senior Lynsie Lamitie. Eaton is a strong, physical post player while Lamitie, listed as a forward, can create match-up nightmares for opposing defenses due to her inside-outside scoring ability.
"These two will have to play much bigger roles for our team this year. Kendra (Eaton) and Lynsie (Lamitie) will both be asked to produce from the low block. Lynsie has three point range which will extend opponents' defense, while Kendra's strength will allow her to rebound and defend and position herself on offense to score."
Two additional veteran posts who will be asked to be versatile are senior Erin May and junior Jessika Johnson. Listed at 6-1 and 6-2, respectively, Harper intends to have the duo play both the guard and post position this season.
"Jessika (Johnson) and Erin (May) understand both positions and can give us some versatility," explained Harper. "They have improved their outside shooting and are more comfortable handling the basketball this year."
There are three newcomers to this year's squad, with one familiar face among them. Sophomore transfer Brooke Johnson joined the Lady Catamount bench mid-season a year ago and because of that, she will not become eligible for game action until after final fall exams in December. Two freshmen, Kristen Feemster and Heather Swayne, will look to mesh with the returning cast quickly.
"Our two freshmen - Feester and Swayne - are extremely intelligent young ladies. They've picked up our system relatively quickly and we expect them to give us added depth off the bench," said Harper. "Feemster will add athleticism to our post play while Swayne, at six-foot, gives us an additional scoring threat on the perimeter. Rounding out the new players is Brooke Johnson, who will be an immediate offensive threat and defensive presence when she is able to play in December. She is an intelligent basketball player and is a scoring threat both inside and out."
The 2006-07 season culminates in early March when the SoCon Women's Basketball Championship heads to North Charleston, S.C., with a new wrinkle. Every game in this season's women's tournament will be played at the North Charleston Coliseum beginning on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007.