BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - Following back-to-back 20-win seasons, Union College seeks to return to the NAIA National Championship Tournament for the third time in four years.The Lady Bulldogs posted a 20-11 overall record last season, marking the first time in program history they posted 20-win seasons in consecutive years. Despite hitting the 20-win plateau, Union fell short of its ultimate goal of advancing to the national tournament for a third-straight season as a 75-69 loss in the opening round of the Appalachian Athletic Conference Tournament ended the Lady Bulldogs' season.
Union will open the 2009-10 campaign Tuesday at home against Asbury (Ky.) College at 7 p.m.
The Lady Bulldogs lost only one starter and three contributors from last year's squad, but head coach Tim Curry noted success is contingent on good leadership and solid team chemistry.
"It will take improved leadership and team chemistry for us to advancing further than we did last season," he said. "In addition, we will need to stay healthy."
The Lady Bulldogs return a solid core of senior players including two-time AAC Player of the Year Brooke Smith (Pineville, Ky.) and three-year starters Ashley Lunsford (Orlando, Ky.) and Carley Blankenship (Lexington, Ky.). Those three combined to average nearly 41 points and 18 rebounds per game.
"We have a lot of experience coming back this season with Brooke, Ashley and Carley leading way," said Curry. "Add to that, we have good depth that will give us the ability to play nine-to-10 players deep."
One area of concern for Union is the lack of experienced size.
"Outside of Brooke Smith, we don't have anyone with any proven experience at the collegiate level," said Curry.
In all, Union has three players who stand at least 6-foot tall with Smith being on of them. However, the other two have played a combined 65 minutes for the Lady Bulldogs.
Two of the starting positions are locked up with Blankenship and Smith penciled in at the point guard and post positions, respectively.
Lunsford, who has been a three-year starter, has an inside track at one of the remaining starting spots as either of the remaining positions.
Other candidates include sophomores Courtney Thomas (Glasgow, Ky.) and Kara Pile (Fairdale, Ky.). The duo started a combined 32 games in 2008-09. Thomas is 5-foot-9 guard/forward who is versatile enough to play on the wing or at the small forward position. Pile has potential to spell Blankenship at the point as well as see time at the shooting guard slot.
Newcomers Carpi Savage (Orofino, Idaho) and Leslie Eagle (West Liberty, Ky.) could see time in the starting lineup at the wing positions.
With three years of experience under her belt, Blankenship will once again lead the Lady Bulldog offense. The 5-foot-6 guard has averaged 10 points per game and dished out 233 assists during the past two seasons. She is on the verge of becoming the 13th player to join the 1,000-point club and the fourth to amass 400 career assists.
After Blankenship, Curry is looking to freshman Natalie Stone (Clay, Ky.) to provide depth at point guard.
The Lady Bulldogs will look to have more size out on the wings; however, replacing the 3-point shooing of Susanna Todd is big concern.
A 2008-09 All-AAC Third Team selection, Todd is the program's all-time leading 3-point shooter with 271 career 3-pointers. She set the program record for best 3-point shooting percentage as she hit 50.0 percent (69-of-138) during her senior campaign.
Lunsford is the team's top returning 3-point shooting, having drained 40 last season. Pile, who averaged 7.06 points per game in 2008-09, followed with 32 treys.
Blankenship and Jessica Baker (Canmer, Ky.) each buried 31 shots from long range last year. Baker ended the season averaging 5.38 points per game.
With Thomas, Lunsford Savage and Eagle either 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9, Union will have one its tallest lineups ever on the perimeter.
Lunsford has continually proven to be one of team's most versatile players as she averaged 9.61 points and 6.35 rebounds to go along with 71 assists and 48 steals. Meanwhile, Thomas is showing she fits into that mold as well as she averaged 4.74 points and 3.42 rebounds with 59 assists and 25 steals.
As has been the case the past three seasons, Smith is the option down low in the paint. The 6-foot forward/center captured her second AAC Player of the Year award last season after averaging 21.5 points and 8.10 rebounds per game.
"I expect her best season yet," Curry said of the three-time All-AAC player. "She should be a leader on our team in all areas."
A two-time NAIA Third Team All-American, Smith became just the second player in program history to score 2,000 career points and is quickly closing in on Amber Spencer's scoring record of 2,273 career points. She also ranks third in program history with 722 career rebounds.
In addition to her offensive prowess, Smith is a force on the defensive end with 160 blocked shots and 97 steals in her career.
Curry is hoping to have a healthy Rachel Underwood (Breman, Ky.) to provide Smith some help in the paint. Underwood saw action in just 15 games last season, averaging 1.67 points and 0.60 rebounds per game.
APPALACHIAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
The conference endured a number of changes since last season which could alter the balance of power in the league.
Covenant (Ga.) College and King (Tenn.) College both left the conference and the NAIA for the NCAA. Covenant, which won the league tournament, is joining the NCAA Division III, while last year's regular-season champion King is bolting for NCAA Division II.
Filling one of the vacancies is league newcomer Reinhardt (Ga.) College, which went 9-21 overall and 5-15 in the Southern States Athletic Conference in 2008-09.
The AAC is now down to only nine members, meaning there is just one automatic bid available to the league for the national tournament.
"Having only one bid changes everything," said Curry. "Tennessee Wesleyan and Milligan (Tenn.) both return a lot while Reinhardt becomes an immediate competition in our league. With many improved teams, this could be the tightest race yet in the AAC."
The race for the regular-season crown has been a tight one for the past two years. In 2007-08, Union and King were co-champions and had to play a one-game playoff for the tournament's No. 1 seed. Last year, the top six teams were all within three games of one another as fifth-seeded Covenant rallied to win the conference tournament.
In the coaches' preseason poll, Milligan is picked to win the regular season with Union a close second. Tennessee Wesleyan, Reinhardt and Bryan (Tenn.) College rounded out the top five.