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Veteran Ferrum cast seeks third straight NCAA tourney appearance
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Ferrum College senior guard Shea Smith, a former standout player at Franklin County, drives to the basket for two points during last year’s non-conference home-court victory over Roanoke College. (Staff Photo by Steven Marsh)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

By STEVEN MARSH - Sports Editor

FERRUM -- During Bryan Harvey's tenure as Ferrum College's women's basketball coach, the Panthers have won three championship banners -- all of which hang in William P. Swartz Gymnasium.

There's room for a fourth -- and plenty of more for that matter.

Ferrum, a year removed from a 24-5 finish and a second straight appearance in the NCAA Division III tournament, is the preseason favorite to win the USA South Athletic Conference, but to do it, the Panthers will have to navigate a different league landscape.

Christopher Newport University (CNU), a perennial league title-winner and last year's champion, is in its inaugural year in the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC), and the USA South has added Huntingdon (Ala.) College and Covenant (Ga.) College one year after adding Maryville (Tenn.) College, Piedmont (Ga.) College and LaGrange (Ga.) College.

The Panthers defeated the Captains in their lone regular-season meeting last year and afterwards, the Captains did not lose again until the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament.

"Christopher Newport has been a powerhouse for a long time, and I think they were good for our league,' said Harvey, now in his ninth year as head coach. "They were always a national power. For us, that's what we hope to be, what we aspire to be. It's good to see where you fit in.

"When I first got here, we were trying to catch them and I feel like the last couple of years, we've been right there with them on equal footing,' Harvey said.

"They were good for us and I'm going to miss that. Hopefully, we can get some non-conference games with them. I'm going to miss competing with them,' Harvey said.

In women's basketball, the USA South has split into divisions with Ferrum, Mary Baldwin College, Averett University, Greensboro (N.C.) College, Methodist (N.C.) University, North Carolina Wesleyan College, Meredith (N.C.) College and William Peace (N.C.) University in the North Division and Maryville, Piedmont, LaGrange, Huntingdon and Covenant in the South division.

Ferrum plays the teams in its division twice and the teams in the other division once for 19 league games.

"With expansion of the league, it's going to take a little time to figure it all out,' Harvey said.

"It's a little bit different with the way the split is. It would be nice if we had an equal number of teams (so divisions would be equal). I think you've got to play this year and see how (the split) works. I don't know what the perfect answer is. I think it's going to take a couple of scheduling cycles to figure out what is the best thing for our league.'

The changes will have an effect on Ferrum's strength of schedule.

"Last year, we had CNU on the schedule and we played Maryville (a Division III at-large qualifier) twice. This year, we have Maryville just once. Our strength of schedule is going to take a hit.'

Also, the overall No. 1 seed gets to host the conference's postseason tournament. Because of division play, that advantage could be determined by the outcome of one game.

Ferrum's second conference game this season is against Maryville, the favorite in the South Division, and it's on the road.

The Panthers enter this season of change with a cast of veterans -- they return four of five starters from a year ago and they have experienced players coming off the bench.

"It's a pretty good senior and junior class,' Harvey said. "Shea (Smith), Kayla (Goins), Boreika (Burwell) and Katy (Kipps) have been on a pretty good run,' Harvey said.

That senior quartet enters the season having been a part of 65 victories.

"When it's all said and done, this will probably be the most successful senior class that's ever come through Ferrum College in women's basketball. I'll definitely have some work to do (in recruiting) to replace them,' Harvey said. "The next couple of years, I'm going to have to do some major work to replace what we're about to lose.'

Ferrum finished fourth nationally in field-goal percentage (45.2 percent), sixth in assists-per-game (17.5 percent) and seventh in scoring offense (77.7 points-per-game) a year ago.

"I definitely think there are high expectations going into the season. I think we're going to get everyone's best shot,' Harvey said. "The thing we've worked on this offseason is toughness. I think we need to be a little tougher, and defensively, I think we need to get better. There are times when we play well defensively, but we are not the defensive team that we need to be.'

Harvey said his team can't always rely on winning simply by outscoring the opponent.

"You are just not going to outscore everybody. Then, you are going to have those nights when you are not shooting the ball particularly well,' Harvey said. "Are you good enough defensively to win on those nights?'

Ferrum's loss to USA South newcomer Huntingdon in last year's national tournament was "one of those nights,' Harvey said.

"We didn't shoot it well and we were not good enough defensively to make up for that. I think we've got a lot of very-skilled offensive players and, sometimes, I think they get satisfied by outscoring opponents,' Harvey said. "I just don't think that's a formula for playing deep into (the NCAAs). The teams that play deep in the playoffs are good defensive teams and good rebounding teams.

"We've got seniors who have done what I've asked them to do for four years. They should understand our defensive system by now, so, hopefully, we'll see some improvement defensively this year,' Harvey said.

Returning junior Jacole Hairston, a preseason honorable mention All-America selection by Women's DIII News, averaged a team-best 13.5 points last year. She finished seven in Division III in field-goal percentage after being ranked first during the season.

Hairston was the only guard listed in the top 10 in that category. She converted 57.2 percent of her shots (158 of 276) last year.

"Usually, field-goal percentage leaders are post players.

"For her to be that high nationally, says a lot about her shot selection. She is just a very efficient offensive player,' Harvey said.

"It might be a little more of a challenge for her this year. With Tesla (former All-American guard Telsa Akers) gone, I think the focus defensively will be Jacole and probably Katie inside. She's going to get defended maybe a little bit differently,' Harvey said. "With the types of shots she does take, I think she has the ability to shoot a high percentage.'

Smith (Franklin County) returns at point guard after finishing eighth nationally in assists-per-game last year with an average of 5.6.

"I think Shea is one of the best passing point guards in the country. If our kids get out an run, she always finds the open man. She's a very unselfish player.'

Smith has the ability to score too.

"I don't think she needs to score more. I think she has the ability to and I expect that she will score more,' Harvey said. "With what we lost with Tesla's scoring (12.7 points-per-game), you'll see Katy's production will probably go up, Jacole's production will probably go up and I think Kylene (Culler) has the ability to score. Kayla (Goins) is going to increase her scoring load. Shea will probably increase her scoring, but I don't think that's something she has to do for us to be same team offensively that we were last year.'

Kipps averaged 12.6 points, Smith averaged 9.8 and Culler averaged 9.1 and a team-best 8.6 rebounds-per-game.

Ferrum has added transfers Lindsay Martin and Krista Cox, both of whom are sophomore guards and both of whom that Panthers recruited out of high school.

Martin is a transfer from Division II Catawba (N.C.) College who prepped at Carroll County.

"She has the ability to score the basketball. She shoots the ball extremely well. She has a knack for scoring,' Harvey said. "I think she is going to contribute right away.'

Cox is a transfer from Virginia Intermont College who prepped at Floyd County.

"She is an unbelievable shooter. I feel like she's as good a shooter as we've had since I've been here (as head coach),' Harvey said. "She is going to give us an outside threat that we definitely need.'

Khadija Payne is a the team's lone freshman. She prepped at Princeton (W.Va.), the same high school that produced Akers.

Juniors Myah Robinson and Jessica Rhodes and sophomore Kemani Crawford also return.

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