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Wayne Cavadi | | November 8, 2017

5 teams to watch heading into 2017-18 season

  Alice Heinzler (14) returns to lead a young Drury team.

The DII women’s basketball season is set to tip off. Ashland heads into the season on a 37-game winning streak, and with a bevy of returners, the Eagles are the clear favorites on their quest to repeat.

RELATED: A new look Top 5 highlights the preseason poll

Virginia Union opens 2017-18 season ready to go as well. Despite losing the conference Player and Defender of the Year in Lady Walker, the Lady Panthers return Alexis Johnson and Jayda Luckie, who are capable of leading the charge back to the national championship game.

So, aside from last year's DII women’s basketball’s super powers, who else should be on the radar for 2017-18? Here are five teams to watch.

Alaska Anchorage

2016 final ranking: 10  | 2017 preseason ranking: 4

Head coach Ryan McCarthy has created a perennial national championship threat in his five-year tenure in Anchorage. The Seawolves went on a run to remember over the past three years, going 97-7 with three-straight Great Northwest Athletic Conference championships and a record-setting, 38-win, national runner-up campaign in 2016.

The bulk of the team that made up that run is gone, leaving UAA with a relatively new look. But as long as McCarthy is there, the Seawolves are contenders. 

Guard Tara Thompson is the lone starter returning for Alaska Anchorage. Senior forward Shelby Cloninger returns as well. Cloninger appeared in every game for the Seawolves last season, finishing fourth in scoring with 8.3 points per game, but will now be asked to lead the front court as a starter. 

Colorado State-Pueblo

2016 final ranking: 11  | 2017 preseason ranking: 5

The ThunderWolves are coming off a program record-setting season in 2016-17. They won 28 games, including a 24-game win streak to open the season.

All five starters return from that team. 

Molly Rohrer will continue to be a presence in the paint. The reigning Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Player of the Year set school records in blocks (77) and blocks-per-game (2.4). Katie Cunnigham also returns. Cunningham, the reigning RMAC Defensive Player of the Year, led the conference in rebounds last year (9.2 per game). Lauren Heyn, Taylor Long, and Tuileisu Anderson round out the starting five. 

The question mark is new head coach Curtis Loyd. Loyd comes to Pueblo from the NAIA. He has the luxury of having a team very familiar with each other. If his coaching style meshes off the bat, this will be a dangerous squad.

Drury Panthers

2016 final ranking: 6  | 2017 preseason ranking: 7

Former Drury standout student-athlete Molly Miller has built a Great Lakes Valley Conference powerhouse in her three years with her alma mater. The Panthers are 82-13 with two GLVC championships and three trips to the NCAA postseason.

Three starters return including last year's leading scorer Heather Harman (15.3 points per game), last year's leading rebounder Hailey Diestelkamp (8.2 points per game) and Daejah Bernard who was second on the team in assists (3.3 per game) and fifth in scoring (9.4 points per game). Senior Alice Heinzler returns after missing last year with injury, but was amongst the best in the GLVC in steals and 3-point shooting during her junior campaign. 

They have a nice little postseason rivalry brewing with Ashland. A year after ending the Eagles season in the postseason, the Eagles returned the favor en route to their title last year. Robyn Fralick and Miller are two of the top young coaches in the division, and hopes are high we are treated to Ashland vs. Drury III this March.

Valdosta State

2016 final ranking: NR  | 2017 preseason ranking: 8

The Blazers finished 11-17 in 2015-16. Head coach Carly Kuhns was named head coach for the 2016-17 season and led the program to one of the more remarkable turnarounds in DII. Valdosta State finished 22-10, taking home its first Gulf South Conference title since 1984.

Kuhns returns all of her starters from that run and is projected to repeat as GSC champs.

Madi Mitchell led the team in scoring with 16.6 points last season and finished second in rebounds with 8.5 a game. Kenya Samoné Dixon led the team in rebounds with 8.6 a night. Both earned preseason All-GSC honors. The Blazers open GSC play December 2 against a West Florida team that is No. 18 in the preseason poll. That's a big early season test against the team they'll need to beat to repeat in the GSC.

West Texas A&M

2016 final ranking: 15  | 2017 preseason ranking: 9

The Lady Buffs won the South Central Region last year, advancing to the Elite Eight. It's the third time in the last four years West Texas A&M accomplished the feat. This is always a team to watch.

Head coach Kristen Mattio will have her work cut out for her in her third season in Canyon, Texas. The Lady Buffs lost four starters but return Lexy Hightower and Sydney Walton, who do have starting experience. Hightower was fourth on the team in scoring last season with 9.1 points per game, while Walton finished second in rebounds with 5.3 a game. 

Not only will managing a new starting lineup be challenging for Mattio, but so is the Lady Buffs schedule. Seven tournament teams from last year on the slate including an early season showdown with Colorado State-Pueblo on November 25. West Texas A&M isn't wasting any time showing its ready to compete for a title in 2018.

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