GREENWOOD – Expectations are high for the Lander women's basketball team following a third consecutive Peach Belt Conference Eastern Division title, a second straight appearance in the PBC Tournament championship and a run to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
As the 2017-18 season tips off, the Bearcats are looking to both continue an impressive run of success and establish their identity as a new team.
"You're very proud of your past and you promoted it when you recruited these kids," said head coach Kevin Pederson, "but once they get here, the last thing you want to do is make them feel like last year's team or that they're walking in someone else's shadow."
The shadow cast by last year's squad is larger than some thought it would be. The Bearcats stormed to a 25-8 record and advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA Southeast Regional, falling to eventual region champion Columbus State.
"When we came in last year, we had just lost Bre Crum, Ashleigh Zandi, Jada Wallace and Sannayiah Johnson, four of our top seven scorers," said Pederson, "and we felt like we were a year away. Last wound up going much better than we thought. We won the division and went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and had more success than we did a year ago. Now, we return nine of our top 10 scorers, we've got a very talented recruiting class coming in and I think there's a feeling around the program that we're very anxious to find out how good we are."
The lone loss from last season's team is a big one. Ty'Hesha Reynolds, the program's second-leading scorer in history, is no longer in the backcourt after averaging 15.9 points per game last season and leading the team in assists.
"You're talking about a kid who led the league in assists her sophomore and junior year," said Pederson. "That's what we're going to miss. That kid was a phenomenal playmaker."
Two Bearcats expected to help fill the void left by Reynolds have already earned plenty of accolades in their careers. Senior center Breshay Johnson (Hopkins, S.C.), the D2CCA Southeast Region and Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year, and senior guard Mylea McKenith (Durham, N.C.), last year's co-PBC Defensive Player of the Year, will be asked to play vital roles during Lander 2017-18 campaign.
"Our challenge to Breshay has been, you've got to be the kid we turn to when we don't know where the baskets are going to come from," Pederson said. "When we need a big play, you're the kid that everyone should know, 'I'm going to give everything I've got, but Shay's here if I can't get it.' I haven't needed to motivate Mylea; Chelsea Mitchell (Laurel, Md.) has done that. Chelsea came in and said 'I want to be the Defensive Player of the Year.' They give us, in my opinion, the best 1-2 defensive punch I've had as a coach, and I've had some good ones."
In the backcourt, McKenith and Mitchell, a junior transplant from Morgan State, are joined by a bevy of talented guards. Juniors Ariana Sanders (Pearland, Texas) and Christal Williams (Riverdale, Ga.) join a unit that features sophomore Jessica Harris (Sumter, S.C.), last year's starting point guard, and a pair of experienced sophomores in Alexius High (Jonesboro, Ga.) and Destinee Langford (Lexington, S.C.). Freshman Destinee Webster (Marietta, Ga.) rounds out the group.
"It's going to be interesting to see what Harris does this year," said Pederson. "Her numbers were really good last year. She's had an outstanding preseason and she's probably the kid I'm most excited to see what jump she makes. There's a lot of kids who look good right now, but I'm curious to see who will perform when the lights come on."
The Bearcats hope to have added depth at the post to assist Johnson. Junior Lea Petit (Duluth, Ga.) is healthy after dealing with the aftermath of an injury last season, while talented freshman Deonna Day (Georgetown, Texas) has shown great potential. At forward, senior Zuzana Talackova (Hořice, Czech Republic) returns from injury, while junior Victoria Baldwin (Hoover, Ala.) and sophomore Tabitha Dailey (Augusta, Ga.) will also be called upon.
"The comforting thing for us is a year ago, Lea was coming off her ACL injury and was not ready to go," said Pederson. "She's grown leaps and bounds and we're giving her every opportunity to compete with Breshay. Dee Day has all kinds of talent, it's just a question of how fast is her learning curve."
Lander enters the season regarded as a team to watch both regionally and nationally. The Bearcats were the preseason pick to win the PBC championship and hold a No. 15 national ranking entering the year. Despite the lofty expectations, Pederson is hoping his team will focus on the process over the outcomes.
"Until you see how good everyone else is and you see who you are," he said, "it's just impossible to know how good you are or what you should expect out of a season. Our big theme is, let's just win the moment. If we're lifting today, let's be the best lifting team we can be. If tomorrow we're working on transition defense, let's win that moment and be the best transitition defense we can be. With the schedule we play, we could play our best game and lose a few and that's okay. You might see some teams sitting at 8-0 and we're 5-3, but I'm not willing to concede those 8-0 teams are better than us because of our schedule."
"What I want to see from this team is that they buy in. We all believe we have a chance to be a really good team, but we're still at a point right now where we lift or we practice because we have to. I'm looking for them to buy in and understand that to be special, you have to be excited to do those things. If we approach things the right way, we're going to improve a lot. We've got the talent to win right now, but if we get the mentality and the little things right, this team has the potential to be special."