By Chris Whitaker, Americus Times-Recorder
A new horizon is ahead for the Georgia Southwestern women's basketball team.
In such a season as last year in which the Lady Hurricanes won their first game and dropped the final 26, their first two exhibition games this season - both wins - have stirred different emotions on the team.
"We're looking much better than we did last year, and we're excited about the new team," said junior Brittany Reynolds.
GSW finished its exhibition schedule Thursday at Georgia State, and the Lady Hurricanes hope this newfound confidence will carry over once the season begins Monday when North Alabama comes to town.
The Lady Hurricanes return seven players from last year's team and coach Kelly Britsky has brought in seven new faces who she believes can be big pieces to the puzzle for a successful season.
"This group has a wealth of experience and knows how to win," said Britsky, who enters her second season as head coach. "They all came from winning programs and the mindset is different when you attack a ball game. You got in to win and not afraid to lose."
GSW was at the bottom in every major category last season the Peach Belt - shooting, scoring, defense and turnovers. Only one conference game was decided by single digits, but Britsky said there was a big reason for that.
"We were not as athletic as the teams we were playing," she said. "They'd outrun us, outscore us, and they were faster than we were. It's not that we didn't do good things or have good games, we were out-manned the entire time."
Four JUCO transfers and three freshmen have been added to the roster, including Nadirah Gardner, who won a national championship last season at Gulf Coast (Fla.). She has so far proved to be a scoring threat, much to the appeal to Reynolds, who led the team in scoring (10.6) and rebounds (6.7) last season.
"It feels better to know that if I don't have a good game, someone else will," she said. "Everybody is not looking for me to do everything this year, and it's kind of a relief."
Britsky said the incoming group has also made the returners better as well.
"Each one of them has in their own way gotten better and stronger," she said. "Then being surrounded by the other experienced players have brought their game up a level. We'll see some of them play bigger roles this year."
The Lady Hurricanes struggled shooting the ball last season, connecting on just 34 percent of their shots. They were last in turnover ratio (-8.59) and assist-to-turnover ratio. Britsky said those areas need the biggest improvements.
"We're much more athletic," she said. "We pass better, we find each other better, and we're quicker. It's just totally a different look. We have more tools to score and more people to get the job done.
"But our biggest question is how our improvements are going to equate to wins and losses in our conference. We're a much better team."
The Lady Hurricanes led most of the way against Florida A&M on Sunday before falling behind only to rally and win 51-49. Britsky said the team's mindset will loom large early in the season.
"You could see all the players going, ‘Here we go again,' " she said. "The new players put the brakes on that. We've got a long way to go to breaking those habits.
Junior Whitley Wiltz, who comes from Southwest Community College (Miss.), said there's a lot of positives and negatives entering the season but the key for their success is perseverance.
USC-Aiken and Clayton State begin the season ranked 19th and 21st in the country after five teams made the national tournament. The Lady Hurricanes hope to surprise some teams if they overlook them.
"We've just got to keep on - keep climbing, keep improving," she said. "I feel like as we grow together, it will make us better. We all want to win as a whole, and we've got a lot to prove."
Added Britsky: "I'm excited, but almost afraid to be too optimistic. It's going to be interesting to see how react after that first loss. We know we'll have to fight through it. It's a bumpy road to success."