HPU starts against ASC foe in non-conference tilt

The Howard Payne Lady Jackets earned a second straight American Southwest Conference West Division championship during the 2016-17 campaign, but fizzled at the finish — dropping their final three games including the ASC tournament opener at the Brownwood Coliseum.

Picked to finish second in the ASC West behind Mary Hardin-Baylor, the Lady Jackets — who posted a 15-11 overall mark and 12-4 conference record — begin the 2017-18 campaign Friday night.

“I think it’s a fair assessment but at the same time I think it’s motivation for the girls,” HPU head coach Meia Daniels-Netter said of the Lady Jackets’ standing in the preseason coaches and media poll. “Last year, the way we ended the season was rough with all the losses and I was out having a baby. You’re only as good as your last season ended. UMHB beat us at the end of the season, so they can say they’re better than us right now. Even though we’re back-to-back West Division champs, we still have to earn it. And if they fight for it hard enough they’ll get it.”

The Lady Jackets open the season at 7 p.m. Friday at ASC foe UT-Tyler in a non-conference game. HPU and UT-Tyler also clashed in a non-conference battle last year as well. The Lady Jackets lost the first meeting, but picked up the victory in ASC action at the Brownwood Coliseum.

“Tyler’s one of the biggest games we play,” Daniels-Netter said. “Last year it actually helped us a lot. We went up there and lost, but we came back here and won. This is a big game for us to open our season and see where we’re at. Tyler’s a little different team than they’ve been in the past, so it should be an interesting battle. We match up pretty well, about the same height, same speed, so it should be a good game.”

After Tyler, Howard Payne takes on Texas Lutheran twice (Nov. 20 and Nov. 25), Southwestern (Nov. 26) and Division I programs Stephen F. Austin (Nov. 18) and Lamar (Nov. 21) before beginning ASC action at UT-Dallas (Nov. 30).

“I just want to see them get better,” Daniels-Netter said of the early goals. “We can’t go up and down, the biggest them is for them to get better every game. We give them goals and stats we want to hit every game. That should help them actually progress and get better because a lot of times in November and December they just stay the same. You have to get better before you go into Christmas break to come back and have a good ending to your season.”

Among the key returnees for the Lady Jackets are senior point guard Presley McKethan, junior guard Valarie Matlock, senior guard Jada Evans and senior guard Djimonii Jackson.

“Presley is back for us in full effect and Valarie led the conference in steals,” Daniels-Netter said. “Jada came back stronger knowing she doesn’t have a lot of other people to rely on so she has to showcase her talent a little bit more. Djimonii is another one coming back at guard.”

Newcomers to the roster include freshman guard Chelsey Harris, freshman forward Chelsi Woodard and freshman 6-0 center Jordan Sweat, among others.

We have three freshmen and a transfer that came in and we’re pretty excited about them coming in and helping,” Daniels-Netter said. “Just looking at the kids through the scrimmages, some have stepped up in ways I wasn’t used to, but that normally happens every year at this time.”

As for the biggest strengths of the Lady Jackets, Daniels-Netter cited their ability to play as a unit.

“This year we’re playing together as a team,” she said. “Before we’ve had one or two kids standout, but this year they play team basketball and need each other to be successful. Our defense is still pretty solid and we’ve gotten some longer, quicker kids to come in to help with that.”

Though the Lady Jackets face a couple of Division I squads, picking up wins against the Division III opponent on the schedule could proper HPU into the kind of season Daniels-Netter is hoping to see.

“We usually start our season up and down and some of that has to do with playing Division I teams at the beginning,” she said. “At the same time, those are just games to see where your heart is and what you’re going to fight for. Normally after we finish those we gain some confidence, but we want to get off to a good start from the beginning and not wait until the middle of the season to realize how good we are.”

As for the keys to the Lady Jackets emerging not only as West Division champs, but conference champions, Daniels-Netter said, “ To be really good we’re going to have to keep playing together. They’ll be a time when I need some individuals to step up and fulfill their potential. We have kids that could have helped us as freshmen and sophomores, but now that they are seniors and they know they have to help us now.”