Last year’s first-round exit in the American Southwest Conference tournament has burned in the minds of the Howard Payne Lady Jackets since the end of February. Today, the Lady Jackets begin to take out that frustration and start their march to what they hope is the program’s sixth ASC women’s basketball crown since 2005.

The Lady Jackets — picked to finish second in the West Division of the ASC, according to the preseason coaches and media poll — tip off their season in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Jackson, Miss. with games against Berry College at 5:30 p.m. tonight and Huntingdon College at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“That’s right about where we should be when you consider what we lost last year with four really good seniors in Brittany Roberson, Jasmin Thomas, Roshonda Gayden and Abby Parmelly,” HPU fifth-year head coach Josh Prock said of the preseason poll. “But I like the progress these kids have made. We’re on the right track, we just have to keep working to get there.”

Howard Payne returns nine members from last year’s 20-6 squad — the ninth straight Lady Jacket team to post at least 20 wins, but just the second since 2005 not to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Among the returnees are seniors Kayla Scott, Dana Marrs and Senae Dillard, juniors Tresta Donahoo, Britani Gattis and McKinley Meyer and sophomores McKamie Place, Morgan Marriott and Breanna Conway.

Those nine players averaged a combined 30 points last season, but Prock is confident the offense will be there when the Lady Jackets need it.

“Going back to when I first took over the program, if you look at the past there’s always been kids that stepped up,” Prock said. “Whether it was a Hohertz or (new assistant coach)Meia Daniels or Stacey Blalock or Kim Hoffman, and in recent years Clarissa Krum and Brittany Roberson, there’s always been kids here who knew it was there time to step up.

“We have several kids, any number of six or seven, who could definitely put 10 or so points on the board. We’re not going to have to rely on one kid to score this year, several of them can do it. This team is extremely balanced one through five, but the biggest key is getting our inside game going early.”

Conway and Marriott, both 6-1, will see time the bulk of the time at the post as the Lady Jackets look to revive their play in the paint on both ends of the court.

“We’re young, especially at the five spot, but I have a ton of confidence in Breanna and Morgan,” Prock said. “Both are progressing extremely well and I think we’ll have a better presence as far as the middle of our defense is concerned. This year we’ll be a lot bigger and that will definitely show on the defensive end for sure.”    

The foundation of the Lady Jackets’ success was built on defense, which Prock anticipates will be solid again this year.

“We have a lot of new faces in new places, especially with our defense, so we need those new faces to step up and play defense like this program’s been able to over the last several years,” Prock said.

An area of concern, however, is Howard Payne’s performance at the free throw line.

“My concern this year, and every year, is free throw shooting,” Prock said. “I think this team is going to be better at free throws, but that cost us in three of the five regular season losses we had last year.”

Following their trip to Mississippi, the Lady Jackets kick off ASC action with three straight home games against UT-Tyler, Mississippi College and Louisiana College. A solid start to the season could go a long way toward determining where the Lady Jackets fit in the ASC picture this year, and if a return to the NCAA tournament is imminent.

“Our goal is to get to the national tournament and beyond, and that’s the goal every year for this program,” Prock said. “But to get there we’re going to have to have kids step up. The future of the program is bright, but we have a lot of seniors and juniors that we’re going to be relying on. I have a ton of confidence in them.”