Hickory Ridge is the toast of the conference and as loaded as any team in the state. They have at least six Division I players and one of the early season favorites to win it all. Second place is a three-team battle. Myers Park, Butler and Rocky River all went 10-2 last year and should be in the mix once again. The frontrunners all lost key players since last year, but will figure it out by the middle of the season and battle for first place. Independence coach Lauren Galvani has turned the once bottom-feeding Patriots into a tough out, and that rise should continue this year. Garinger and East Meck will again be toward the bottom of the conference, and it will be another uphill battle for Porter Ridge, which went winless in league play.
Coach: Mark Sanders, eighth season (140-59)
2016-17 Record: 21-7, 10-2 in Southwestern 4A
Returning Starters: 3
The Bulldogs won 15 consecutive games down the stretch last year, but lost in the conference championship and in overtime of the first round of the NCHSAA tournament.
They’ll look to rekindle that late-season magic, but will do so with a team that lacks experience and height. Coach Mark Sanders has never had a losing season at Butler and will find a way.
The Bulldogs must replace three of their top four scorers, but will look first to Destiny Lewis, who is back after scoring 7.1 points and averaging four rebounds and three steals per game.
Sophomore Payton Sutton averaged over four points per game and is a floor general who does everything well. Michaela Dixon scored about three points per game and grabbed nearly six rebounds per game. She will bolster the frontcourt.
Juniors Jiani Bryant, Renee Kennedy and Amyha Schofield will provide depth as rotation players, and newcomer Nia Nelson, a 5-10 wing, will give the Bulldogs much-needed size inside.
Coach: Lauren Galvani, third season (9-40)
2016-17 Record: 8-18, 4-8 in Southwestern 4A
Returning Starters: 1
Former North Meck and Lees McRae star Lauren Galvani has helped turn around the Patriots program after years of struggles.
Last season’s eight wins are the most since the 2008-09 season, and the Patriots won just 20 games – including a 61-game losing streak from 2013-15 – during the seven-year stretch until last year.
This year, the Patriots must replace four starters, but will begin with Sharonda Smith, who returns with her 4.5 points per game.
Ayanna Anderson and Brianna McManus were key reserves last year, but will be asked to step into larger roles this season. Anderson is the top returning scorer (4.7 points per game) and a strong rebounder (5.8 per game). McManus showed flashes last year, averaging 3.3 points per game, and will provide senior leadership.
Braylyn Milton, a freshman point guard, will get a shot at running the show after starring for Mint Hill Middle School last year.
Coach: Shantorie Jones, first season
2016-17 Record: 21-8, 10-2 in Southwestern 4A
Returning Starters: 2
The Ravens finished in a three-way tie for the Southwestern 4A regular season crown, but won the conference tournament and went to the third round of the playoffs while winning 21 games, just one short of the school record.
This year, the Ravens will look a lot different after losing five seniors and four of their top six scorers from the team.
Still, they are expected to be one of the conference’s top teams.
Junior point guard Andresia Alexander is the team’s leading returning scorer after averaging 13.6 points, four steals, three rebounds and two assists per game as a sophomore.
Sophomore wing Delayzha Dixon averaged six points and four rebounds per game as a freshman. She is in line for a big season.
Sophomore wing Mashya Scott averaged over two points per game in a limited role, but got valuable experience as a freshman last year.
Junior Eva Powell appeared in just two games last year, but will see a major increase in her production this season.
Coach: Barbara Nelson, sixth season (126-20, 626-230 overall)
2016-17 Record: 16-11, 10-2 in Southwestern 4A
Returning Starters: 1
The Mustangs graduated four starters from a team that helped Nelson win a share of her fifth straight conference crown. There will be a learning curve, but the veteran coach will get this team where it needs to be.
Senior post Claire Proctor averaged four rebounds, three points and two assists per game and returns to the starting lineup.
Junior guard Andrea Shire is the team’s leading returning scorer (4.2 points) and will join Mollie Zuyus (three points per game) as experienced players who will be given more opportunities to score.
Senior guards Erin Owens and Chaselyn Dunn saw some action last year and will provide leadership and getting senior guard Mimi Schrimsher back from an ACL injury will give Myers Park depth and experience.
The backcourt will be further strengthened by the arrival of Weddington transfer Michala Funderburk and freshmen guards Naya Clamp and Taylor Henderson.