As the Division II women's basketball season gets under way, these are five teams you're going to want to keep an eye on this year.
Head coach Kari Pickens has already won national championships with the Eagles as a player (2013) and assistant coach (2017). She's guided Ashland to a 61-3 record over the past two years, highlighted by a perfect 31-0 mark in 2019-20. If not for the season ending prematurely, a championship trifecta could've been in reach for Pickens and the Eagles. Replacing four seniors, including All-Americans Jodi Johnson and Sara Loomis, is never easy but Ashland returns seven players. Starters Hallie Heidemann and Karlee Pireu are both back to lead the Eagles. Heidemann knocked down 51.2 percent of her 3-point shots a year ago. Sophia Fortner and Erin Daniels are both candidates for a jump in court time this season alongside Heidemann while Annie Roshak could fill one of the starting spots as well.
Like Ashland, Drury had also marched into the NCAA tournament with a perfect record — 32-0 —before the season was cut short. But the Lady Panthers have some questions that need answering in the early goings of a new season. Assistant coach Amy Eagen made the 18-inch move to head coach in place of Molly Miller. Her first challenge is going to be replacing the production from WBCA Player of the Year Hailey Diestelkamp and starting guard Daejah Bernard. That's not an easy thing to do, but Drury does return nine players. Paige Robinson and Emily Parker are the two starters back from a year ago and could both take big steps forward. That still leaves three starting spots open. Look for Payton Richards and Kelsey Winfrey in the backcourt and forwards Azia Lynch, Alana Findley and Mia Henderson to contend for an uptick in minutes.
The Cavaliers have improved in each of head coach Kate Bruce's first four seasons. Coming off of a 28-2 campaign, there's good reason to be excited if that trend continues in Year 5. Walsh will look to continue tightening its grip on the GMAC after putting together a perfect record in league play, capped by a conference tournament title. All-American guard Sha Carter is one of eight returns for Walsh and figures to be the catalyst in North Canton, Ohio, to one of the more high-powered offenses in DII. As a sophomore, Carter averaged 18.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Forward Mayci Sales will control the frontcourt for Walsh after putting up 17 points and 8 rebounds per game. Guards Lexie Scarton and Megan Ball both have a chance to become mainstays in the starting lineup this year, joining Carter and Kimmie Borck in the backcourt.
The Skyhawks were trending upward at the end of last season, shaking off a 7-4 start to win 16 of their final 17 games. Another year with that type of second-half momentum and the buzz in Easton, Mass. could feel a lot like 2018 when Stonehill reached the Elite Eight. Head coach Trisha Brown might have the best high-low combination in the league between Honorable Mention All-American forward Kayla Raymond and the return of guard Isabella Santoro, who averaged 13 points per game before an injury ended her season after 11 games. In addition to Santoro and Raymond, the reigning NE10 champions return five more players that received double-digit minutes a year ago.
Cal State San Marcos
With UC San Diego moving to Division I, the Cougars have a chance to establish themselves as the team to beat in the CCAA. Cal State San Marcos won 25 games a year ago, ripping off winning streaks of 11 and 7 games en route to a share of the league's regular-season title. Head coach Renee Jimenez's group continues to improve with major strides taken in each of the past two years after an eight-win season in 2017-18. Leading scorer Akayla Hackson returns to lead a deep guard rotation in her senior year. Hackson is joined in the backcourt by Dynnah Buckner, Stephanie Custodio and Kelsey Forrester. Look for transfers Kate Carlson and Shasta Parker to step into some potentially meaningful minutes in the frontcourt.