ATLANTA, GA. – The sound of squeaking sneakers will soon echo across the “Lefty” Driesell Court at the Georgia State Sports Arena as the Panther’s women’s basketball team get ready for the start of the 2017-18 campaign.

The team seeks to build off the strides made last season, where the Panthers went 12-18 and placed seventh in the Sun Belt, a progression of three spots from the previous year. But they’ll have to do it with a revamped roster that features only five holdovers from last season, two of which missed substantial time with injuries.

The leader will clearly be Jada Lewis. The McEachern alum is the reigning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year. She led the Panthers in scoring with 11.6 a game, and also paced the club in assists with 57.

Lewis should benefit greatly from Madison Newby’s return. Newby, who was Freshman of the Year before Lewis, went down with an Achilles injury after playing in only three games. The Archer alum received a medical redshirt, so she and Lewis will have three seasons together, and give opponents fits in the backcourt.

Last season, Newby’s injury accelerated Lewis’s development. Now the duo can step back into their roles and not feel as if they have to do it all themselves. Newby is a natural point. Lewis will focus on being the two guard.

They’ll be backed up by other returners Kierra Henry and KK Williams. Williams had a knee injury in a loss to Arkansas State and missed the rest of the year. According to head coach Sharon Baldwin, Williams is almost fully healed. “She’s gradually done some stuff, but she’s not full go yet. She’s doing well, so I definitely think she’s on track.”

The other new guards are Shay Fluker and Janessa Murphy. Both came from quality JUCO programs. Fluker set the single season point record for Walters State (TN), while Murphy hit 80% of her foul shots for Tallahassee Community College.

The Panthers have more questions on the frontcourt, where they lose almost two-thirds of last year’s rebounding. The only returner is Shaquanda Miller-McCray, a sophomore from Sumter, South Carolina. Miller-McCray only played in 72 minutes last season, but swatted ten blocks in that time.

However, a plethora of new talent gives the Panthers optimism. Francesca Milani, a 6’2″ redshirt sophomore from Italy by way Northeast CC (Neb) is ready to play after sitting out last year. She’ll be joined by other JUCO signees Juliet James (Northwest Tech) and Victoria Middlebrooks (Southwest Tennessee). Also available are the two freshmen, 6’1″ Rakeah Williams from Westlake, and 6’0″ Deja Mitchell out of Duluth.

“We’re bigger and stronger than last year,” Baldwin said. “Shaq has gotten bigger, stronger, and in better shape. So has Fran. I’m looking forward to the others being able to come in. Rakeah and Deja have been hampered by injuries in the preseason. I’m excited to get them out there and see what they can do.”

Georgia State also brings in two new coaches to replace staff members Latricia Trammell (WNBA’s San Antonio Silver Stars) and Erin Batth (staff at Liberty). Tron Griffin comes to Atlanta after coaching Truett-McConnell (Cleveland, GA) last year, while Jasmine Young was an assistant at Virginia Union. Previously, Baldwin coached Young while both were at East Carolina.

Overall, Baldwin thinks the Panthers can build on last season’s improvement. “We’re in better shape this year,” the seventh-year head coach said. “I think we’re faster. We’re really in here working. I’m excited about the newcomers. Some of the veterans have been hampered and not being able to do some things. They’re coming along, but they’re not quite back to where they were.”

Georgia State will have about six weeks of practice until the games start. The non-conference schedule features a tough opening gauntlet with two road contests against tough SEC squads. The opener will be against Florida in Gainesville on November 11. The Gators went 15-16 in 2016-17, but they suffered from a lack of depth as they only had nine players available. This year’s edition has no such problem, and the Gators will be led by senior Haley Lorenzen, a 6’3″ forward who averaged 11.7.

The big test comes the following Thursday, when the Panthers journey to Starkville to battle Mississippi State. The Bulldogs marched through the 2017 NCAA tourney, dispatching Sun Belt winner Troy by over 40 in the first round. But their run ended in the National Championship game to South Carolina, and return leading scorer Victoria Vivians. This year’s edition will be just as hungry.

“I’m not sure what we were thinking with that,” Coach Baldwin said with a chuckle. “I figured it would be good for us. We want to make sure we play a challenging schedule so we’ll be ready when the conference slate comes around after Christmas. I’m excited. We’ve got an opportunity to play there and be competitive.”

Competitive is the watchword. If the Panthers can successfully keep the progression forward, they might challenge in the Sun Belt.

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