Stephen F. Austin hired Brandon Schneider three years ago to return the Ladyjacks basketball program to the type of consistent success it enjoyed under Gary Blair and Royce Chadwick. Those were the days when the Ladyjacks won Southland Conference titles every year and usually won a game in the NCAA Tournament.
You can forgive Ladyjack fans if they believe they're poised for a return to the NCAA tournament in 2012-13 after 23 victories and a surprise run to the Southland Conference Tournament Championship game last year.
"I think we're a lot closer to being contenders for a conference title," Schneider said. "But we're still very young. I think we might be one more year away from being the caliber of team we're striving to be."
Why? Well when Schneider took over in 2010 he inherited seven seniors. So he and his staff had to hit the road almost immediately to recruit. The results entering his third season is a team with just two seniors and a core group of sophomores that might put the Ladyjacks back on the national map. SFA should field a starting lineup with four sophomores when the Ladyjacks host Louisiana-Monroe on Friday night.
Senior Ashlee Mells, a 5-8 guard, probably won't start. She is struggling with plantar fasciitis and may not be 100 percent by the opener. She averaged 6.8 points last year, but saw that average jump to 9.3 points in SLC play and earned All-SLC Newcomer of the Year honors after sitting out the 2010-11 season due to transfer rules.
Schneider jokingly calls her "The Microwave," the nickname of former Detroit Pistons sixth man Vinnie Johnson.
The younger players must continue to develop in order for SFA to replace the scoring of All-SLC First Team performer Tammara Marion, who graduated and was SFA's leading scorer last year at 14.7 points per game.
"She (Marion) wasn't just our best offensive player; she was our best defensive player," Schneider said. "To make up for that scoring it's going to have to be by committee."
The committee starts with 6-2 sophomore center Porsha Roberts, who came from the same high school — Waco La Vega — that produced the Ladyjacks' all-time leading scorer, Katrina Price.
Roberts started all 33 games last year as a true freshman, averaged 9.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and earned All-SLC Freshman of the Year honors. She was SFA's only All-SLC preseason selection.
Her growth was faster than most freshmen, Schneider said. One thing he hopes Roberts will get better at is avoiding fouls.
"With experience and maturity she'll grow out of that," Schneider said.
Roberts, combined with 6-1 junior forward Annette Davis, gives the Ladyjacks a pair of back-to-the-basket centers that Schneider hopes can be used on the floor together more often. Davis was SFA's best center off the bench last year, averaging 6.5 points and 4.6 rebounds.
Along with Roberts, Schneider expects to start sophomore point guard Brittney Matthew, sophomore forward Tierany Henderson, junior forward Antionette Carter and either sophomore forward Daylyn Harris or sophomore guard Ashley Bettis.
Matthew cracked the starting lineup 16 times last season and SFA was 11-5 when she started. Henderson started nine games last year and was fourth on the team in rebounding. Carter is a junior college transfer who averaged a double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds) last year at Murray State College. Harris started nine games last year and Bettis started five games. Bettis started in SFA's exhibition game last week.
McNeese is considered the SLC favorite. SFA, picked to finish as high as second and as low as fourth, will ramp up to the SLC opener on Jan. 3 with a pair of games at Cal-Poly and consecutive road games at Oklahoma State, Rice and SMU in December.
"I think we'll play a caliber of competition right before the start of league play that will get us ready," Schneider said. "We should be prepared to face what we feel like is the strongest the Southland Conference has ever been."
SFA hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2006. Since then they've reached the Women's NIT twice and played in the Women's Basketball Invitational last year. SFA fans are hoping their third week in March will be spent looking at an NCAA bracket.