Otahkians are the preseason choice to win the conference

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Southeast Missouri State University women's basketball coach B.J. Smith had an idea his team might be the Ohio Valley Conference preseason favorite -- and he doesn't mind one bit.

The Otahkians, who had their best-ever NCAA Division I showing in their first season under Smith last year, nosed out three-time defending champion Austin Peay in voting by the conference's head coaches and sports information directors at Tuesday's OVC media day.

Southeast returns four starters -- including all-OVC preseason first-team senior guard Kenja White and second-team senior forward Carina Souza -- from a squad that went 19-11, a second-place 11-5 in the conference and lost to Austin Peay in the finals of the league's postseason tournament. White was last season's OVC newcomer of the year.

"I knew we would be somewhere in that vicinity," said Smith, whose squad also welcomes in several heralded newcomers. "It's nice for the program to get that respect and I don't have a problem with us being picked to win the league. That's one of our goals and I really like our team.

"But the thing about the preseason, being picked first doesn't get us any extra points. I think the conference will be very balanced and it should be a tough race."

The Otahkians received 10 first-place votes and 188 points to finish just ahead of Austin Peay, which had nine first-place votes and 182 points.

Austin Peay returns preseason OVC player of the year Gerlonda Hardin, a powerful senior forward, and two other starters from a team that went 27-3 and rolled through the league with a 16-0 record. But the Governors graduated sensational guard Brooke Armistead, last season's conference player of the year.

"What a great feat from last year. I'm sure people are looking to get revenge on that," said Austin Peay first-year coach Andy Blackston, previously the head coach at Alabama-Huntsville. "We'll see how we do without Brooke Armistead."

Smith acknowledged that losing Armistead will hurt the Govs, but he said, "They'll still be good."

Also expected to seriously contend for the title are Eastern Kentucky, which received one first-place vote and was picked third, and Tennessee Tech, which nabbed the remaining two first-place votes and was selected fourth.

Eastern Kentucky (18-11, 10-6) returns four starters from last year's third-place club, including senior guard Katie Kelly, a first-team preseason pick.

"We feel good about our experience," Colonels coach Larry Joe Inman said.

Tennessee Tech (12-17, 6-10) had to replace all five starters last year and finished a worst-ever sixth place, but the Eaglettes return all five regulars this time, including first-team preseason sophomore center Emily Christian, the reigning OVC freshman of the year.

"We feel a little bit better about our team," Tech coach Bill Worrell said. "We have more experience."

Morehead State (16-12, 9-7), coming off a fourth-place tie, returns just two starters, including first-team preseason senior guard/forward Kandi Brown, and was picked fifth.

Eastern Illinois (6-22, 5-11) was tabbed sixth, followed by Tennessee-Martin (13-16, 9-7), Jacksonville State (15-14, 8-8 Atlantic Sun), Murray State (8-20, 4-12), Tennessee State (4-22, 2-14) and Samford (7-20, 3-13 Atlantic Sun).

Tennessee State is coming off a last-place finish while Jacksonville State and Samford are the OVC's two new members.

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