By Angel Verdejo
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON - Mary Hardin-Baylor lost four seniors from last season's 21-6 team.
That group combined for 71 total starts last year, and led the Crusaders to their first American Southwest Conference West Division title and semifinal appearance in the conference tournament.
Mallory McAdams, Kellie Thomas, Kallie White and Jessica Kelly left the program having never missed the ASC postseason.
"They also had been leaders for quite a long time - since they were sophomores," UMHB head coach Kim Kirkpatrick-Thornton said.
But despite the success, it may not be what the Crusaders lost.
Especially when fans look at who is coming back.
"We have good experience," Kirkpatrick-Thornton said.
The Crusaders have 10 returners from a year ago, with three - Lindsay Eaton, Caitlin Barganier and Stacie Stephens - earning conference postseason accolades last season.
The leadership dynamic will change with the new season, but the large returning group has seen where the program has taken itself in the last few years.
"They have that confidence of what we did, they have that feeling and they have that reputation they want to uphold," Kirkpatrick-Thornton said. "So that helps tremendously, but it is a challenge to try and mix everything. It's just working together and practice day in and day out together as a team."
It is a new year, though, a point Kirkpatrick-Thornton did stress around all the talk of the experience.
The schedule has a new look to it - the Crusaders make an out-of-state trip during nonconference play for the first time. UMHB opens the season this weekend at the St. Norbert Tipoff Classic in Wisconsin.
The Crusaders open against Wisconsin-Oshkosh at 5 p.m. Friday, and will face either Macalester or St. Norbert on Saturday. The played two out-of-state teams last year, but both (Wisconsin-Stout and Bluffton) were at the Trinity University Classic in San Antonio.
"This is all kind of new for us, but we feel like it's to help push us to the next level," Kirkpatrick-Thornton said. "We're proud to have won the West last year, but we don't want to settle for that. We know that bar is raised for us now."
Looking ahead at the year, Kirkpatrick-Thornton said the team's defensive intensity has continued to pick up. That effort, she said, will only make the Crusader offense even better.
UMHB should feature a multi-faceted attack on offense, with a number of players capable of leading the team in scoring. Nine different players led the Crusaders in scoring a year ago.
"That's one thing that really helped us last year," Kirkpatrick-Thornton said. "We were hard to guard because we had a wide range of scorers. I feel like we still have that."
Leading that group is Eaton, who led UMHB in scoring last season (11.1 points per game) and had 30 points in a scrimmage.
Barganier (2.9 assists per game) will lead the Crusaders from her point guard position, while junior Brittany Zamora transferred from Howard Payne and is another shooting threat. The Cedar Park native averaged 20 points in two games against UMHB.
"Last year what I saw it did for us was it just made us so hard to guard," Kirkpatrick-Thornton said. "They couldn't help off anybody…We just have a good, balanced attack."