HANCEVILLE, ALA. – The final win for Wallace State's women's basketball team last season may have been the biggest in program history.
Wallace State upset Eastern Arizona at the NJCAA Division I tournament, marking the program's first ever opening-round win in five national tournament appearances.
The Lady Lions finished the season 28-6, made their first NJCAA tournament appearance since 2011, earned the Alberta Lee Cox Award for best sportsmanship nationally and gave coach Ron Burdette his 100th career victory at Wallace State.
It was definitely a March to remember.
"It was such a rewarding experience. From Morgan Smith's buzzer beater in double overtime against Shelton State at the conference tournament to winning for the first time at the national tournament, it all culminated in a special season. It's one I'll never forget," Burdette said. "It seems like yesterday we were getting back from the national tournament. We're looking forward to beginning a new chapter. I'm ready to see what happens next. I'm very optimistic by conference time we'll be able to make a run through conference."
Wallace State, the 24th-ranked team in the preseason national poll, opens the 2015-16 season today at Cleveland State, featuring a completely overhauled roster with 15 freshmen.
Sophomore Hannah Vest is the lone returner for Wallace State. Vest, a 5-foot-6 guard from Sand Mountain, returns 82 of the 2,430 points scored by the Lady Lions last season.
Burdette is interested to see who picks up the production left behind by last year's sophomores, including Morgan Smith, who was a 2nd-team NJCAA All-American, and Haven Albright.
"Everyone is still trying to find their place on the team and I am too. We are very, very young. I'm still trying to find out what the best identity is for this team. We may not find it until we get three or four games under our breath. Once we put the uniform on when it matters, we'll begin to see who's ready and who lacks confidence," Burdette said. "Each player has special traits as far as what they contribute to our team. I have to put the pieces of the puzzle together and see who plays well with each other."
Burdette has been impressed with the freshmen's determination to get better.
"They come to work every day and work hard. I have some gym rats. I have a bunch that wants to come in and get into the gym before and after practice," Burdette said. "Most of these freshmen come from winning high schools, so they know how to win and are used to winning. We have players from Class 6A and 7A schools, so they are used to playing strong competition. They just have to realize they aren't the star of their high school teams anymore."
Among the cast of newcomers, Burdette believes Alex Lowery (Pinson Valley High), Janese Richardson (Thompson) and Jemaiya Lee (Oak Mountain) each have a chance to be impactful players for the Lady Lions.
Kelsey Houston, a 1st-team ASWA All-State guard from Tanner, and Kayla Carter, a 3rd-team All-State forward from West Limestone, are also among the Wallace State freshman on the roster.
Burdette has recruited six players who are 5-foot-10 or taller.
"We are bigger down low than we've been in a while. We are athletic down low, but we're also physical. It's by far the most athletic and biggest team I've had," Burdette said. "We should be able to pound it or play fast and run."
Rounding out the Wallace State roster are Ciera Smith (Pleasant Grove), Velencia Johnson (Hoover), Khadijah Jordan (Shades Valley), Megan Johnson (Pike Liberal Arts), Morgan Higgins (Lincoln County HS, Tenn.), Sarah Reid (Dade County HS, Ga.), Keyasha Gordon (Spain Park), Anika Bothwell (Ashville), Jasmine Hollins (Dublin HS, Ga.) and D'Andrea Smith (Sparkman).
Burdette is entering his fifth season at Wallace State after being named the 2014 ACCC North Coach of the Year and the 2015 co-ACCC Coach of the Year.
Jessica McBrayer, a former Wallace State Lady Lions, enters her second season as an assistant coach.
Picture: Members of Wallace State's 2015-16 team are, front row, from left, Ciera Smith, Khadijah Jordan, Janese Richardson, Hannah Vest, Megan Johnson, Alex Lowery, Kelsey Houston and D'Andrea Smith, back row, from left, Velencia Johnson, Jasmine Hollis, Morgan Higgins, Keyasha Gordon, Sarah Reid, Jemaiya Lee, Kayla Carter and Anika Bothwell. Also pictured on the back row are Wallace State's managers.