MONTGOMERY, Ala. ---- After several tough losses last season, Auburn Montgomery women's basketball coach Dan Davis believes this year's team has the depth to return AUM to its historical place near the top of the Southern States Athletic Conference.
"We lost nine games by single digits last year," Davis said. "A couple wins here and there and you could have been looking at a 20-win season. This year's team is hungry. This is the first time that I've had a team where they all like to be in the gym. There are a lot of intangibles that I hadn't necessarily seen in the past which I think could be a key to our success."
The Warhawks finished last season with a 14-16 record that was identical to their performance in 2010-11. A 7-11 conference record ranked them fifth in the SSAC west division, a one-spot improvement from the year before.
With a six-player recruiting class which includes five guards, along with the return of senior captain Kamesha Strong, Davis expects a deeper backcourt to support a strong group of returning inside players.
"This is the quickest team we've had on the perimeter since I've been here," Davis said. "We definitely felt like our guard play needed to improve, and I feel like this year we've added more athletic ability to go along with some scoring potential."
Perhaps the most important returner on the inside, senior forward LaKenya Drayton ended last season with six double-doubles in the team's last seven games. She led the team with 7.6 rebounds per game, and her 9.8 points per game were second-best. Drayton was selected to the All-West Division team by the SSAC for her efforts.
"Kenya was one of the top post players in the conference at the end of the season," Davis said. "She was the only player to start every game, and she made huge strides as the year went on."
Drayton's inside talents will complement the scoring ability of junior guard Keisha Moore, who joined Drayton on the all-west team after leading the team with 12.4 points per game. Moore came to AUM from D-I Tennessee Tech.
"Keisha has come back with a commitment to being a great player on both ends of the floor," Davis said. "She's added a lot of muscle in the offseason, and she's improved a lot overall. She has the ability to be one of the best defensive players in the league."
Moore and Drayton are joined by five other returners from last season. Senior Caitlin Cunningham and sophomores Marren Schwartz and Tina Odume are back on the inside. Strong and sophomore Jazmine Jackson return on the perimeter.
Schwartz and Cunningham both saw significant playing time in 2011-12, and this will likely remain the case this year.
Schwartz earned a spot on the SSAC's All-Freshman team after her first season at AUM. The 6-2 center ranked second on the team in rebounds and blocks, while also continuing to develop offensively.
"Marren's got the potential to have a very special career," Davis said. "She is truly dedicated to being a big-time player. She's gotten stronger, and has also developed a mid-range shot. A lot of teams will have trouble trying to matchup against her and Kenya."
Cunningham joins Strong and Drayton to make up the three team captains for 2012-13. She appeared in all 30 games last year for the Warhawks, making 12 starts and averaging 4.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.
"Caitie will provide a lot of experience for us," Davis said. "She just brings a lot of little intangibles to the table, and she's been huge from a leadership standpoint as our practices have gotten under way."
Odume saw limited action in her freshman season, but Davis is excited about the progress made by the 6-2 center during the offseason.
"Tina Odume might be our most-improved player," he said. "She has really come back stronger. If she continues to work hard in practice, she should see an increased role this year. She has a ton of potential."
Going back to the returning guards, Davis is thrilled to have Strong back after the vocal 5-3 floor leader missed the last 23 games due to an injury. In her limited action, Strong has the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team while playing from the point guard position.
"It's huge to get Kamesha back," Davis said. "You cannot value what she means to our program based on stats. She's the heart of the team, and she is relentless in her competitiveness. She plays hard on every possession, and she takes care of the ball. It's like having an extra coach out on the floor."
Jackson appeared in 23 games last season in a reserve guard role, and she is expected to fight for playing time again this season.
"Jaz stepped in nicely as a backup point guard for us last season," Davis said. "She's come in to this year in good shape, despite having to deal with an offseason injury. I expect her to be a steady point guard option for us."
As mentioned earlier, Davis focused his recruiting efforts on improving depth at the guard positions. He also valued experience in his recruits, with all six newcomers having played at the junior college level.
"We felt like we needed recruits that had already been seasoned," Davis said. "They've all had success at either the Juco or high school level. They've been in winning environments, and as a result they will bring a winning attitude to AUM, which we felt was very important."
Ashley Rush, Katie Williams, Psachal Maize, Amber Bennett and walk-on Antonise Harper will compete for playing time at the guard position, while Chelsea Haggermaker is the lone inside recruit.
Rush played at West Florida last season, averaging 10.3 points per game with a 2.55:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the eight games she appeared in. Prior to her time with the Argonauts, the 5-7 senior spent two seasons at Gulf Coast CC, where she was a member of the Commodore's 2009-10 NJCAA National Championship team.
"Ashley has looked really good in the early going," Davis said. "She's competing at the point guard spot to start, and she'll also play some wing. She has a good shot, and can create off the dribble. She's a very good basketball player."
Williams will be a 3-point threat for the Warhawks, having shot over 40 percent from behind-the-arc during her two seasons at Snead State CC. She also shot 84 percent from the free throw line while averaging 9.5 points per game during her sophomore season at Snead.
"Katie can really stroke it," Davis said. "She will be a great outside threat for us to go along with Keisha."
Maize and Bennett were teammates at Shelton State CC, helping lead the Lady Bucs to a 33-4 record and the Alabama Community College Conference Championship during their sophomore seasons. Maize, who had the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team, earned all-conference honors last season.
"Psachal's got a nice shot," Davis said. "She'll be somebody that can come in and knock down the open three. She's got good playmaking ability."
Bennett averaged 5.5 points per game during her two seasons, and shot over 40 percent from the field during her sophomore season.
"Amber is a blue-collar type of player," Davis said. "She'll get at you defensively, and rebound like crazy. On offense, she has a get-to-the-paint mentality. She's that type of guard.
"The new guards that we've brought in, they all bring some different things," he added. "But as a group, they've shown great maturity. They're athletic, and they can shoot. They should really help our overall team balance this season."
Harper was a late addition to the team. She transferred to AUM after spending a year at Concordia College in Selma, where the Lady Hornets won the USCAA National Championship.
"We don't take walk-ons very often, but I think she'll turn into a good pickup for us," Davis said. "She brings a lot of athletic ability on the perimeter, and she has a nice pull-up jump shot."
Haggermaker earned all-conference honors in her lone season at Southern Union CC, averaging 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. The 6-0 sophomore forward is expected to provide depth on the inside during her first season at AUM.
"Chelsea is a player that we think has the potential to keep developing as the year goes on," Davis said. "She's just got to keep learning how to play with her back to the basket."
The Warhawks will play a lot of unfamiliar teams prior to conference play this year, with five matchups against first-time opponents.
"We're playing some different teams, which I kind of like," Davis said. "I think we'll get to see some different styles of play. We're find out where we're at early."
Only four of AUM's first 16 games will be played at the AUM Gymnasium, though the Warhawks are participating in a two-game tournament at nearby Faulkner. Also included in the early schedule is a trip to Samford for an exhibition game against the D-I Bulldogs, who have made the NCAA Tournament in their last two seasons.
Though no coach likes to put a specific number on what it would take to have a successful season, Davis believes that AUM has the potential to compete for the SSAC west division title.
"Any coach would say that making the national tournament is a successful season," Davis said. "You've got to have good players, and a little bit of luck.
"I really like this team," he continued. "We still have a long ways to go, but they've shown us some really good things so far. We have a lot to look forward to."
The Warhawks begin the 2012-13 season next Tuesday, Oct. 30, with a road matchup at Reinhardt University.