RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. (Harding) - Harding edged out Southwestern Oklahoma State to claim the top spot in the Great American Conference's women's basketball preseason coaches' poll, the conference office announced on Tuesday.
The Lady Bisons went 19-9 last season and they return all five starters for 2013-14. Kristen Celsor led Harding in scoring at 14.9 points per game. Celsor and Arielle Saunders tied for fourth in the GAC in rebounding, averaging 8.2 per game. Saunders finished third in the GAC with 60 blocked shots. Shana Holmes gave the Lady Bisons a third double-figure scorer at 13.0 per game.
Southwestern Oklahoma State took second in the preseason poll after going 24-7 and advancing to the NCAA Division II National Tournament for the first time in program history. Michelle Fisher looks to lead the Lady Bulldogs again as she scored 17.1 points per game last year, tops among GAC returning players. SWOSU also brings back the top 3-point shooter in the GAC, Kimmi Sawatzky. She connected on 44.3 percent of the 3-point attempts last season.
Arkansas Tech claimed both the GAC regular-season and tournament titles in 2012-13, but placed third in the preseason poll. The Golden Suns return only three from their championship squad and feature eight freshmen. Sophomore Caroline Eubanks averaged 7.6 points and 6.3 rebounds in her first season in Russellville. She grabbed 22 rebounds in the GAC Championship game against SWOSU.
East Central and Ouachita Baptist finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in the coaches' poll. ECU improved by 11 wins in 2012-13 in going 19-9. Second-Team All-GAC forward Dilan Webster averaged 14.0 points and 7.3 rebounds in league games last season. Ashley Robison and Aylcea Price also averaged at least 7.0 rebounds per game in GAC games. Ouachita Baptist must replace Monica Williams, who averaged 19.8 points and 10.2 rebounds in GAC games. They bring back Nashia James. She averaged 14.4 points and made 40.5 percent of her 3-point tries.
The coaches voted Southern Nazarene, who won 13 of their final 14 games, sixth in the preseason poll. The Crimson Storm lost Oumoul Thiam and Annie Kassongo, the team's top two scorers. However, they bring back junior center Aminata Fall. She averaged 14.3 rebounds per game and increased that average to 15.9 per game in GAC games. She also led the conference with 96 blocked shots.
Southeastern Oklahoma State and Arkansas-Monticello took seventh and eighth in the poll. The Savage Storm's Haley Scahefer led the team in rebounding, 6.2 per game, and she finished second on the team in scoring at 10.2 per game. For the Cotton Blossoms, they feature the 2013 GAC Freshman of the Year Jordan Goforth. She led GAC freshmen and UAM in scoring at 12.8 points per game.
Henderson State, Northwestern Oklahoma State and Southern Arkansas rounded out the poll. The Lady Reddies and Lady Muleriders each brought in new coaches for 2013-14. Henderson State hired Jill Thomas from Pfeiffer University in North Carolina. Her team went 27-5 last season and she claimed the Conference Carolinas Coach of the Year. Rusty Rainbolt became the fifth head coach in SAU history. He coached for three years at NCAA-Division III Concordia Texas in Austin. In his time at Concordia Texas, he posted a 54-24 record.
Joey McWilliams and Michael Westbrook of the GAC Sports Network will preview each GAC school beginning on Wednesday with Southern Arkansas. The 2013-14 regular season tips off of Friday, November 8. For the third-straight year, the season will conclude at the Bruin Fieldhouse Bartlesville, Okla. at the GAC Championships, set for March 6-9.