By Anthony Gagliano

The Valdosta State women's basketball team almost didn't make the conference tournament, tying for fourth in the Eastern Division. Then, they almost beat Henderson State in the first round of the Gulf South Conference Tournament, losing in overtime to a team that went all the way to the Final Four.

The Blazers don't want to be that team anymore.

"We don't want to be the almost team," sophomore Candice Ferrell said.

The Blazers think they've solved that problem by reloading with a six-woman recruiting class that should solidify a squad that won 17 games last season. Now, they shouldn't wear down with a four-point lead in the final minute, as VSU did against the Reddies when they tied the game with .6 seconds left in regulation.

"It shows that we are right there with the upper echelon," coach Kiley Hill said. "I believe that. But, taking that next step up is a fine line."

One that can only come with improved play away from The Complex. While the Blazers (17-10, 6-8 in the GSC) went 13-2 at home, they plummeted to 1-6 when they traveled to other conference schools. Again though, more bodies should mean more toughness.

"One of the biggest reasons for us on the road was our bench wasn't deep," Hill said. "We ran out of gas late. That's one step closer than we were last year because you want to have a team that was better than the previous year."

With the return of Ferrell and fellow sophomore Traci Newton, Hill should have the firepower to do just that. Coaches tabbed Ferrell a preseason All-Conference pick after she finished fifth in the GSC in scoring (15.4) and second in field goal percentage (60 percent) last season. Meanwhile, Newton should be freed from most of her ballhandling responsibilities to focus more on increasing her 10.3 points per game average.

"I definitely feel more comfortable off the ball," Newton said. "I wouldn't say I was doing because I had to but I'd much rather be at the two (guard)."

"Shifting her to her true shooting guard position should showcase her ability attacking the rim and playing without the use of the dribble and give her more freedom to get out and run," Hill said.

But, before the Blazers can get out and run, they have to walk first. Injuries have already left a mark before the team even hits the court tonight at 5:50 against Puerto Rico de Cayey for its first game. Senior Tiffany Vann, one of the people expected to pick up the point guard duties from Newton, is out at least a few weeks with an injury.

Sante Fe Community College transfer Rose Abreu returned just two weeks ago after recovering from an ACL injury. And former Lowndes standout Kristin McLeod, who transferred back from Piedmont, began practicing Nov. 1 as she recovers from an ACL tear.

That doesn't even include returners Courtney Parker (Lowndes), who missed five weeks in December and January with an ankle injury, and even Ferrell sat out two games with a knee problem.

That's why she and Newton said the team has put an added emphasis on being in shape, in addition to playing stubborn defense.

"Like the Henderson State game, if you go into overtime you have to be mentally and physically prepared or you'll get beat," Newton said.

However, knowing they were that close to so much more has the Blazers setting their sights on advancing further this year.

"We got a taste of it there, and it was so close," Newton said. "And then it was taken away from us. We know the feeling now and we don't want to make it that close to be a problem."

That's the attitude Newton's coach loves to hear. But, he doesn't want his team consumed by that one contest. It's a great learning tool, but just one lesson of many needed to bridge the gap from almost to there.

" It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but it keeps you hungry," Hill said. "One of the biggest things I've preached with this team is we don't want to forget that game, but I don't want to harbor on it either. I want us to learn and move on and understand that winning isn't an accident."

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