Lady Topper coach Mary Taylor Cowles is used to staring down the bench and seeing more coaches than reserves. Last season, Western suited up with only nine active players.
This season, Cowles will notice a lack of height when she needs to call on a reserve. Of the 10 Lady Toppers on the roster, seven are guards and three are forwards, leaving a void in the middle.
The tallest Lady Topper, senior Leah Lineberry, stands only 6-feet-2 inches, but Cowles isn’t about to concede the low post.
“From top to bottom, this has the potential to be a better team,” Cowles said.
The Lady Toppers won’t change much offensively, Cowles said, but defensively blocking out taller opponents will be key when Western needs a rebound.
“We have to play smart,” Cowles said. “We have to put a body on a body and keep them three feet away from the basket.”
Lineberry averaged 4.5 points per game last season, but her leadership will help the four freshmen on the roster.
“We are going to be more fast paced,” Lineberry said of the Lady Topper’s style of play compared to last season.
The Lady Toppers will miss graduated center Shala Reese, the All-Sun Belt performer who averaged 15.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per contest in Western’s march to the conference regular season and tournament titles.
Western also lost Reese’s 6-foot-4 backup Tiffiany Diggins, who finished her eligibility. That leaves Lineberry and 6-feet-1 sophomore forward Krystal Gardner as the only two returning non-guards.
Gardner started 21 games her freshman season, averaging 4.4 points per game. Gardner can play around the basket, but can also step out and shoot.
Playing with a lack of post players will not be an issue for Western, Gardner said, because the team was used to playing with only four last season.
“I think it’s not going to be that big of a deal,” Gardner said. “There is not a Shala out there, so we need to step up and improve all of our games.”
During preseason practices, Cowles was impressed with the athleticism of freshman forward Carla Bartee.
Bartee averaged 24.4 points and 12.3 rebounds per game her senior season at Wayne County High School in Waynesboro, Miss. The 6-foot forward was named first-team all-state and led her team to the 5A State Championship game.
In her first appearance in a Lady Topper uniform, Bartee was impressive in an 101-70 exhibition victory over the Premier All-Stars Nov. 2. Bartee scored 15 points and connected on 3-of-6 three-point attempts.
And after two regular season games, Bartee is averaging 13 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.
Bartee may be young and undersized in the paint, but she will not be intimidated when she faces players a few inches taller and a few years older.
“A lot of girls I will play against will be taller in the post,” Bartee said. “I just need to go in and do what I’m asked, whatever coach asks me to do.”
Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]