By Chris Whitaker
The Americus Times-Recorder
Kelly Britsky is excited about the 2009-10 basketball season.
The third-year women's basketball coach at Georgia Southwestern said this year's recruiting class is a big reason for her optimism as the Lady Hurricanes push to make their first trip to the conference tournament this season.
"We're extremely excited about what we can do this year," said Britsky. "We have a lot of growing to do, and the preseason before conference play really allows us to come together and hitting on all cylinders come January."
The Lady Hurricanes open the season Monday at home at 5:30 p.m. against Albany State.
They were 8-19 last season and 3-17 in conference. They lost seven games by seven points or less in conference, and that was easily the difference in them missing the postseason.
"I think last season we were kind of right on point where we should have been in growing this Peach Belt team," said Britsky. "The first year, we just basically had kids already here, not a lot of what I'd call Peach Belt-type players. Last season we brought in more of those type, and we were competitive every game.
"We easily could have been closer to .500 in the Peach Belt. Hopefully, we will be much more successful in the win column and definitely be a team to contend with. We're a lot deeper this year, and you can't worry about just the first five. We have quite a bit of talent and girls who can hurt you if you let them."
GSW brings back six players from last year, including Brandi Burris (11.2 pts), Brittany Reynolds (10.9 pts, 7.1 reb), Nadirah Gardner (11.5 pts) and Whitley Wiltz (7.5 pts, 6.7 reb) who started at least 23 games. Gardner, however, is not expected to return until January after being academically ineligible.
Britsky brought in nine new players headlined by Division I transfers LaTonyah Bentley (Eastern Kentucky) and Jessica Bivins (Stetson). Bentley has been out of basketball for a season, but Britsky said once she shakes off the rust, she can be a dominant force in the post at 6-foot-2.
"She has height and ability and is quite a good shooter from outside," she said. "We see a lot coming from her. As the season goes on and we're playing team basketball, we expect her to get better and better.
"She can shoot the three, play around the rim, but I'm not sure how soon she'll be comfortable. Right now, we're working with her, getting her more of her aggressiveness back. She's going to come on."
Juniors Jonneshia Pineda, Jaleesa Octalien and Kanita Holloway, sophomore Tonette Murphy and freshman Qouston Crawley are also expected to have big contributions this season.
"We're going to be deeper," said Britsky. "Our top five could hang with any top five, but once we get to subs or in foul trouble, we weren't able to match up with the other team's second five. We should get a lot more points, have better defensive stops, and we won't have a drop in play. That's the biggest improvement for us."
GSW led the conference in rebounds and offensive rebounds, but was last in field goal percentage. Britsky believes the Lady Hurricanes can still be at the top on the glass, and there will be an improvement in shooting.
"We're going to be a balanced attack; you're not going to be able to definitely pinpoint one player to shut down the team," she said. "We have the ability to shoot the ball outside, Brittany and Holloway are strong to the goal, slashing and dribbling. All the point guards have the ability to shoot from outside and drive. We're deeper at the post, and they shoot the ball well outside. Teams will definitely have to guard the entire court."
Britsky said getting Gardner back will be a big plus.
"That will bring us another huge weapon," she said. "She's hard to guard. She has grown up so much over one year, her maturity on the court and her leadership. It will be really nice to watch her this year, both as a person and a player."
With the depth, talent and experience, GSW hopes that will accumulate more wins instead of the close losses.
"The biggest thing those games did, they found they could play in this league," said Britsky. "Those experiences roll over, and when we get to those situations this year, they will know how to play them, how it has to be done. It's not the first they've been there. It'll also be a little bit of revenge per se, that game we lost, we could have had it, let's go get it this year."
The Lady Hurricanes have played a scrimmage against LaGrange and an exhibition against Georgia State, in which they lost 68-49. Britsky said the team hasn't played together yet, and she's trying to rush the process along as quick as she can.
Being in the stronger division - the West - and playing the likes of Clayton State ranked 13th in the USA Today-ESPN preseason coaches poll and Columbus State and Georgia College receiving votes, Britsky knows it will be a challenge to be in the top four in the division.
"It's going to be real interesting; the conference is loaded," she said. "Clayton State being on our side, they're head and shoulders talent-wise above anybody, and probably in the country. The goal is to get in the conference tournament, and we have to be better than two people on our side. We want to be successful at home, and we need to win at home, especially conference games. Hopefully we can go on the road and beat the people we need to be beating. By the end of the year, if we get in the tournament, who knows what can happen."