Exceeding the accomplishments of the previous season has been the calling card of the Howard Payne Lady Jackets during Chris Kielsmeier’s tenure as head coach. Coming off a school-best 28-2 record and the program’s first “Sweet 16” appearance in the NCAA tournament, the bar can’t be raised much higher.

Still, the Lady Jackets believe there are greater goals they can achieve, and much of the nation agrees with them. Howard Payne enters tonight’s season opener in California ranked No. 2 by d3hoops.com and No. 3 by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.

The Lady Jackets will open play in the Redlands Classic at 7:30 p.m. tonight against Chapman, which fell to Howard Payne, 76-37, in front of a Division III record crowd of 4,356 at the Brownwood Coliseum in a second-round NCAA tournament game this past March.

Howard Payne will then conclude its west coast swing against Redlands at 9:30 p.m. Saturday before heading home to begin its defense of the American Southwest Conference championship.

“First and foremost, the ranking is great for the university for the reason that people around the nation are talking about Howard Payne University,” Kielsmeier said. “In a small school setting, if you can get any kind of publicity for your school it’s a good thing.

“We’re in a situation where people around the nation have really respected our program, but there’s no way people can tell how good we are going to be or how good anybody is going to be until you get out there on the court and start playing. What our kids need to understand is we are 0-0 just like everybody else. It’s time for us to play and play well and prove that we are one of the better teams in the nation, not just have the expectation to be one.”

Not only are the expectations within the program and throughout the nation driving the Lady Jackets, so is the memory of the way last season ended. Projected by many to reach the Final Four, Howard Payne’s season ended with a 47-44 third-round loss to Puget Sound. The Lady Jackets hit just 23.7 percent of their field goal attempts in the loss.

“It’s certainly a huge driving force, especially for the seniors who have been here three years and have had a lot of good times and a lot of success,” said Kielsmeier. “I’ve got four seniors that have lost 12 games in their college careers. How many players at any kind of program can say that?

“We’ve got a good senior class that understands how to win and understands how to be good leaders and show other people how to do things the right way.”

The Lady Jackets return three starters from last year’s team — all seniors — in 5-8 guard Meia Daniels, 6-2 center Stacey Blalock and 5-10 forward Kim Hoffman. The fourth senior on the roster — 5-10 forward Daphnie Pippins — has been one of the biggest contributors off the bench for the Lady Jackets the past two seasons.

Daniels will be making the switch to point guard full time, replacing Molly Buker — one of only two seniors the Lady Jackets lost from last year’s squad. Daniels — a first-team preseason All-American selection by d3hoops.com — has played point guard periodically throughout her career, but this season it will become her primary position.

Last year, Daniels averaged 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor with 78 assists and 69 steals.

“Meia is going to be the starting point guard, but we’ll still run her at off guard at times,” Kielsmeier said. “It doesn’t matter where you put her, she’s going to score. Meia just has to learn how to fit within this system at point guard. Every year she’s been here she’s run the point guard, but not in a starting role or a role she played a lot. It’s not a major change or something I’m concerned with at all.”

Blalock, Hoffman and 6-0 sophomore Hope Hohertz will provide an imposing front court for the Lady Jackets.

Blalock — a 2006-07 all-region selection — is coming off a season in which she averaged 13.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game and shot 49.5 percent with 39 blocks.

“Stacey’s really going to have a great year,” Kielsmeier said. “She works so hard in practice and the kid wants it so much. She’s a great kid to coach and she does the things that you ask. She’s really grown up inside and learned how to play the game at such a physical level. With her size and strength, to see her play that physical is fun to watch.”

Hoffman — one of the Lady Jackets’ emotional leaders — has battled injuries during the fall, but is expected to improve upon her 10.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game from a year ago.

“Kim, what more can you say about the kid other than she could have graduated this December and she decided to drag it out for the full year so she could play basketball,” Kielsmeier said. “That sums up what she thinks of this program, what this program means to her and the kind of dedication she has for this program.

“She’s been hurt a little bit this fall, but she’s getting healthy now and I think she’s going to have the best year she’s ever had.”

Hohertz will be featured more in her sophomore season after shooting 48.9 percent and averaging 4.6 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, primarily in reserve role, as a freshman.

“Hope played a lot for us as a freshman and she’ll step into a different role as a starter and play a lot more minutes,” Kielsmeier said. “There will be a lot more on her plate and she’ll have to step up and perform, and we certainly expect her to. The kid has a lot of talent and we expect her to have a great year.”

If there is a question mark in the Lady Jackets’ starting five, it would come at shooting guard where Kielsmeier is looking to replace graduate Heather Hohertz. Expected to see the bulk of the time at the position are 5-9 sophomore Stephanie Brewer and 5-7 freshman Katy Sarem.

“Stephanie didn’t get a whole lot of playing time last year because we had such a talented team,” Kielsmeier said. “It’s not that she didn’t have the ability, there just weren’t a lot of opportunities to play because we had one of the deepest and most talented teams in the nation last year. She has a lot of talent, we see it every day in practice. She just has to bring it to the court in a game setting.

“Katy has tremendous talent, can shoot the ball really well and is really quick. The biggest thing with her is controlling how hard she plays. Sometimes she’s going so hard she over runs plays and takes herself out of plays defensively. But she’s already grown a lot in our program and I think that she’s the next real special player that’s going to happen in our program.”

Early on, depth will be more of a concern for the Lady Jackets than it was a year ago with a combined nine freshmen and sophomores on the roster.

“We do have a young basketball team and it makes for some challenges early in the season,” Kielsmeier said. “I don’t think there’s any question that this year’s team will play its best basketball come February. Last year’s team had so much returning talent with five starters back that we were playing some of our best basketball in December. But this is a different team and a different year and there’s so much youth, but our younger players will continue to learn our system and grow in the system.”

With teams such as McMurry, Hardin-Simmons, East Texas Baptist and Mississippi College aiming to take the conference crown from the Lady Jackets, they won’t have long to put all the pieces together with ASC action beginning Nov. 26 at home against Sul Ross.

“In our conference, the way the schedule sets up you have to play well early,” Kielsmeier said. “It’s important for our players to understand that and we’ve been talking about it a lot. The biggest thing I’m looking for is more consistency. In our scrimmages we’ve done a lot of good things and we’ve done some things that were pretty bad. We always talk about playing harder and playing smarter than our opponent and the playing smarter part is not clicking at a high level right now. But that’s to be expected from a young basketball team.”

Still, when it’s time for conference and national championships to be decided, Kielsmeier expects the Lady Jackets will have worked out the kinks and again be in the hunt.

“It’s not so much about where we’re headed throughout the course of the season as where we’re headed at the end of the season,” Kielsmeier said. “We can have a far better season than we did last year and lose more than two games. The final destination is trying to win as many games in late February and March as you can, and I think this team is only going to continue to get better and better.”