Women's Basketball: Panthers making push to the top of the USA South for 2016-17 season

Women's Basketball: Panthers making push to the top of the USA South for 2016-17 season
The 2016-17 LaGrange women's basketball season brings a few changes, new faces and renewed hope of finishing atop the USA South conference.

Head coach Lee Buchanan (51-30) enters his fourth season leading the Panthers. The Panthers have 18 players on this season's roster including 11 returners. Buchanan has brought in two junior college transfers and five talented freshmen. One of the changes for this season is three-year starting point guard Kelsey Mitchell has graduated and will be on the coaching staff as the  graduate assistant coach. 

"We graduated six seniors from last year's team so as a coach you are always concerned when your program loses that much talent in one class. The returning players are going to have to step up and show good leadership on the court early as the new players learn our offensive and defensive system," said Buchanan. This team has a lot of quality players and we are going to have to get offensive and defensive production from all of them throughout the year."  

Three seasons ago the Panthers were picked 11th in the USA South Conference preseason coach's poll. But hard work, quality recruiting, and continued improvement by all the players in the program has the Panthers picked third in the West Division of the USA South coach's preseason poll.

"We have seen steady improvement each year by our players and with our basketball program overall," Buchanan said. "We play in a very tough and competitive conference with some quality coaches so each night we play we will have to be ready to compete.  

"Even though we return 11 players, we are still a young team with nine of the 17 players on the roster being freshmen and sophomores. It will be very important for us to learn and grow each day as a team so that we can learn each player's strengths on the court. Our upper classmen are going to have to use their experience to lead us early in the season."

Leading the Panthers is the only senior on the team, Kelsey Walthall. She started last year at small forward in 24 games, finishing as the team's third leading scorer, averaging 7.5 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. Walthall holds two big keys to the team's success. She has the speed and athleticism to score, rebound, and defend the opponent's best player.

The Panthers' junior class is seven players strong and loaded with talent. Leading this class is All-USA South guard Lauren Johnson, who averaged a team-leading 8.9 points per game. Johnson's offensive abilities and defensive toughness make her a threat to opposing teams at both ends of the court.

Kymberli Payno returns at the post position and is known for her defensive prowess around the basket. She was fourth on the team with 115 rebounds, while setting a school single-season record with 40 blocks. Payno is the school's career leader with 68 blocked shots after just two seasons. Johnson and Payno are two-year starters and will be looked to for their leadership and experience on the court.
 
Post player Jeris Johnson has shown tremendous improvement since arriving on campus two years ago. She is a hard worker, who has got stronger and playing with more confidence. Johnson is counted on for her toughness in the post position, along with her rebounding and scoring.

Aliyah Williams and forward Shenelle Toxen round out the junior class. Williams is a quick guard that despite being 5-5, can shoot from outside and attack the rim.  Toxen has battled injuries her first two seasons. An undersized post player, Toxen is strong and has the ability to post and score on the inside.
The other two juniors Gadsden State Community College transfers Jaide Walker and Austin Richardson. Walker averaged 10.7 points and 2.6 rebounds per game last season. She shot 39 percent from 3-point range, making 62 treys. She is a talented perimeter shooter and can play either the shooting guard or small forward positions, who will be relied on to increase the offensive output of the Panthers. Richardson averaged 7.7 points and 3.9 rebounds, while shooting 48 percent from the floor. She is a talented forward with size and speed and the ability to shoot from the outside or attack the rim. Richardson is a good jumper and rebounder who can be counted on to play quality minutes for the Panthers.

The Panthers return four talented sophomores who are eager to contribute to the success of the team. All five players have worked hard in the off-season to improve their basketball skills. Marilauren Farr started six games last season and finished second on the team in scoring at 8.0 points and third in rebounding at 5.6 per game. She led the team with 62 offensive rebounds and poised to have a breakout season.

Jaelynn James spent last season learning from two senior point guards and now can apply that to her game. James is super quick and possesses quality ball-handling and passing skills.  Riley Chlupacek battled injuries her freshman season. Chlupacek is a good ball-handler and passer who is an excellent perimeter shooter.

Rounding out the sophomore class is post player Rachel Carter. Carter is one of the strongest players on the team, and shot 50 percent from the floor in a limited role. The improvements in her game and basketball knowledge will allow Carter to be more involved on the court.

"All of our returning players have improved their games in one or two aspects and that is exciting to see," Buchanan said. "I believe their experience and tknowledge of how we play will be a huge factor early in the season."

The new freshman class addresses all five spots on the court (point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center). They are a talented group and should make an immediate impact on the court for the Panthers.

Katelyn Powell: Katelyn is a very quick point guard with good ball-handling and passing skills. She is a smart player with a high basketball IQ and successful playing background. Katelyn has the ability to drive to the basket and make the outside shot. She is a very tough, competitive player who is a natural leader on the basketball court. Katelyn will be counted on to play quality minutes at the point guard position.

Megan Garcia: Megan is an athletic shooting guard who is a tremendous perimeter shooter with the ability to attack the basket. She is very offensive minded and a shooting threat from anywhere on the court. Megan's ability to shoot at anytime from anywhere will make her a valuable scoring asset for the Panthers.

Calli Pollard: Calli is a small forward with good size and skill who will play the small and power forward positions. She has a good shooting touch from outside and is not afraid to shoot the ball. Calli's size and strength allows her to play inside and makes her an excellent offensive and defensive rebounder.

Andrea Lasseigne:
Andrea is a quick, aggressive power forward with good size and athleticism. She has good touch around the basket and is a good jumper and rebounder. Andrea is quick for her size and has the ability to guard inside and on the perimeter. She is a hard worker who adds depth to the Panthers' inside game.

Sarah Evans: Sarah is a talented power forward and center with a good scoring touch around the basket. She has the ability to score with either hand inside and will be counted on for her offensive production this year. Sarah has the capacity to defend and rebound on both ends of the court.

The Panthers play six of their first seven games on the road this season and then take on a tough conference schedule in January and February.
 
"I believe a tough non-conference schedule is important to get our team ready for the rugged USA South conference games in the new year," said Buchanan "We are going to have to be ready to travel and compete on the road all year long if we hope to have a successful season.
 
"Our team must work hard and compete each day in practice to become a solid basketball team by seasons end. Our caliber of basketball has increased each year I have been here and this season should be no different. There are challenges each day and with each game but if we are prepared, focused and committed to playing a quality brand of basketball then the winning and losing will take care of itself."
 Notes:
  • Graduated six seniors from last season's 18-9 team 
  • Team Rankings in the final 2015-16 National NCAA III Statistics:
    Team 10th in FG% defense – 31.4
    Team 16th in scoring defense – 51.4 ppg
    Team 34th in 3-pt % defense – 25.3
    Team 39th in rebounding margin – 7.6
  • Team played in the USA South Tournament semifinals for a third straight year
  • Return 11 players from last year and have added two junior college transfers and five freshmen
  • Return the three leading scorers from a year ago; Lauren Jonson, Marilauren Farr, and K. Walthall
  • Head coach Lee Buchanan reached the 50 career win plateau at LaGrange College last season quicker than any other basketball coach in the history of LaGrange College Basketball (79 games - 50-29).