Season Preview: Suns Want It All in 2010-11

National championship — those two words stir the imagination of college coaches, student-athletes and fans like no others.  As the 2010-11 basketball season dawns, the Arkansas Tech Golden Suns have every reason to believe that they can be the last team standing when the NCAA Division II women’s basketball season ends at the NCAA Elite Eight in St. Joseph, Mo., next March.

The Golden Suns will open their 2010-11 season by hosting St. Gregory’s University for a 2 p.m. game at Tucker Coliseum on Sunday, Nov. 14.

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Four starters and 10 letter winners return from a team that was 31-3 overall, co-champion of the Gulf South Conference West Division, champion of the GSC Tournament and champion of the NCAA Division II South Region in 2009-10. The only glaring areas of concern — additional perimeter shooting and a back-up point guard — were addressed on the recruiting trail by head coach Dave Wilbers and his staff. None of this is a well-kept secret. Arkansas Tech is ranked No. 1 in two NCAA Division II preseason national polls and the Golden Suns are poised to add to a legacy that includes two NAIA national championships (1992 and 1993), three NCAA Division II South Region titles (1998, 1999 and 2010) and 20 regular season conference championships. “We’re excited about the season,” said Wilbers. “We have a lot of experienced players returning, and they’ve done a great job in conditioning during the offseason. Our newcomers also did a good job in the weight room, so we were really able to keep it going from last season. “When we were ranked No. 1 in the preseason, we put it on the bulletin board and that was really all that was said about it,” continued Wilbers. “It helps us in recruiting, so that’s been a good thing, but it’s just preseason and it doesn’t win you any games.” The Golden Suns opened practice for the 2010-11 season on Oct. 15, and Wilbers said that the nature of his team has forced him to make some adjustments. “Our team competes hard,” said Wilbers. “I’ve had to adjust practices because it’s so balanced. We’ve got 17 players on our team, and they are all competing hard. We’ve had some long and tough workouts, but we haven’t had to stop and break things down too much because of our experience. The players understand our expectations for the season, but they also understand that our expectations are high in practice every day.” Senior guards Jenny Vining and Laura Beth Anderson, junior forward Natalia Santos and sophomore forward Jessica Weatherford — all of whom joined the Tech program in 2009-10 — are the core of the 2010-11 Golden Suns. Vining was All-America last year after averaging 17.1 points, 3.8 assists and 2.1 steals per game. She ranked among the top seven players in the GSC in scoring, assists, steals, 3-point field goals made, 3-point field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. Her 117 made 3-pointers and her 307 attempts from beyond the arc were both single-season school records. Vining ranked third in NCAA Division II last season in 3-point field goals made per game (3.4). Anderson did a little bit of everything for Arkansas Tech last season. She averaged 8.5 points and 4.0 rebounds per game while leading the team in assists (135) and steals (80). Santos was named All-NCAA Division II South Region and GSC Tournament most valuable player in 2009-10. She notched 16.1 points and a team-high 7.9 rebounds per game while shooting 53.1 percent from the field. The success experienced by Vining, Anderson and Santos in 2009-10 was not at all surprising. All three — Vining at the University of Oklahoma, Anderson at the University of Central Arkansas and Santos at New Mexico Junior College — had already proven themselves at the college level before transferring to Arkansas Tech. When GSC play rolled around in January, the Golden Suns needed one of their less experienced players to step forward and become a significant producer. Weatherford was that player. She had her first career double-double with 23 points and 11 rebounds in a 78-74 win at Ouachita Baptist on Jan. 21 and never looked back. The product of Lake Hamilton High School went on to average 12.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in her freshman season. She was named GSC West Division freshman of the year and most valuable player at the NCAA Division II South Regional. “Those four girls have been outstanding,” said Wilbers of Vining, Anderson, Santos and Weatherford. “They are a joy to coach, and they have a real desire to win. They want to accomplish more, so I know that we’ll be there for the long run.” Also back for the Golden Suns are defensive stopper Shaquilah Davis, a senior guard from Colorado Springs, Colo.; sharpshooter Katie Horsman, a junior forward from Fairfield Bay; Samanta Ludwig, a junior forward from Toledo, Brazil; Sarah Martin, a sophomore forward from Muldrow, Okla.; Laura Davidson, a sophomore guard from Greenwood; and Taise da Silva, a junior center from Americana, Brazil.

Guard Jackie Dennis of Danville will suit up this season after redshirting in 2009-10.

New to the program are junior forward Lindsey Root of Marion; freshmen guards Shanae Govan of Crossett, Lindsey Burgener of Hattieville and Jae Tucker of Little Rock; and freshmen forwards Whitney Donahue of Clinton and Casse Vaughn of North Little Rock.

“When you’ve got most of your scoring back and a lot of experience back, sometimes it is hard for those newcomers to earn their playing time,” said Wilbers. “Shanae Govan is probably going to be our back-up point guard. She has a lot of quickness and she gives us a different type of point guard. Lindsey Root gives us size and another threat at the 3-point line, which we need because our post players draw so many double teams. And Casse Vaughn gives us a type of player we did not have in the program. She probably has more physical strength than any other player on our team.”