BELTON — The pace in practice was a little bit slower for the Mary Hardin-Baylor women's basketball team in starting this season.

That's what happens when a team has that many new faces.And that's the case with the Lady Crusaders going into today's season opener at Sam Houston State (tipoff scheduled for noon). “We only lost five,” UMHB head coach Kim Kirkpatrick-Thornton said of last season's senior class. “Five doesn't sound like a huge number, but it's kids that have played, started, gotten a lot of minutes anywhere from three to four years.”

Of the 15 Lady Crusaders who played last season, only seven return. Senior guard Brittany Zamora is the lone returning starter.

UMHB welcomes 10 freshmen. Junior Gabby Guzman, a former Belton standout, joins the Lady Crusaders after two seasons at McLennan Community College.

The group includes former Lampasas standout Kayla Prescott, as well as a trio of 5-foot-10 interior players.

“It's a chance to really develop,” Kirkpatrick-Thornton said. “We have a really strong group of freshman girls. One of the years where we were the strongest, we had a group like that that stayed with us for four years.

“You don't want those gaps, and we've had a little bit of a gap for various reasons, but we really believe a lot in our freshmen that are going to come in and help us with our upperclassmen that are returning.”

But that did mean slower practices and more repetition early on for everyone.

“You have to practice patience with them because you were there at one point,” said junior forward Brandy Dittert. “The only difference is, there's more of them and less of the returners. When I came in, there were more returners and five freshmen.”

Many of the new faces will need to fill the shoes left by forwards Lindsay Eaton and Stacie Stephens, and post Landie Thompson. The trio was the core of UMHB's interior presence, with Eaton leading the team in scoring (13.6 points per game) and rebounding (7.0) and Thompson second in both categories. Both were American Southwest Conference All-West Division picks last year.Sophomore Jovana Miles, a 6-foot-1 center, and Dittert will lead the frontcourt.

Senior Lauren Reece should help the point guard duties with Zamora, while fellow guards Miranda Shorter and Cortney Poncik will be counted on more after combining for just two starts last season.UMHB was picked in the ASC West Division in the preseason poll, a move that the team is okay with.

“We still have our same goals,” Kirkpatrick-Thornton said. “It's not fazing me that we're not picked in the top four. I would rather not be at the top as far as picking — I'd rather climb our way up and that's what we'll do.

Added Zamora: “We're just trying to work every day to get better and try to build that team unity. It's going to take time — it doesn't happen overnight — but we've made progress from day one in preseason until now.”

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