Their top three players are gone, including the second-leading scorer in Division III history. Their coach abruptly resigned two and a half months before the season started, and their top returning player averaged 6.4 points per game.
It's no wonder, then, that slightly less is expected from a Christopher Newport women's basketball team that advanced to the first Final Four in school history last season — at least by outside observers.
The Captains, 30-4 and winners of the national consolation game last year, were picked to finish third in the USA South in voting by league head coaches on Wednesday. Considering that a 58-50 loss to Averett on Feb. 12 snapped a 27-game conference winning streak for CNU, that result could be surprising. But the Captains lost all-time leading scorer Chelsie Schweers (25.6 points per game), fellow seniors Jessica Moore and Barbara Davis (a combined 17.5 points and 13.9 rebounds per game) and longtime coach Carolyn Hunter, who resigned on Sept. 2 after going 265-103 in 13 seasons.
"Last year, we had a target on our back," said sophomore guard Tia Perry, a product of Tabb High who averaged 4.2 points and 4.2 rebounds and started two games last season. "This year, (being) third, it gives us a little motivation to fight and show people, yeah, we lost a few factors on our team, but we still have what it takes to fight."
Defending regular-season champion Greensboro was picked to win the league, while Ferrum's women's team was second.
The CNU men, coming off an 18-9 season in John Krikorian's first season, were picked to finish second, behind 2010-11 champion North Carolina Wesleyan.
While Krikorian finds the going, from practices to pre-game meals, smoother in his second year at the CNU helm, interim women's coach Jon Waters, a 19-year assistant to former men's coach and Captains athletic director C.J. Woollum, got his initial look at his team in Monday's first practice.
"It's way too early to know exactly how any of these different pieces fit together or what's there," Waters said. "… One of the things with last year is that each of the complementary players had their own strengths. One of the great things that Carolyn was able to do with that group was to pull the different pieces together and allow each person to kind of just play their part.
"The difference this year is that now they've all got to play a little bit different part. Some of the people that were comfortable in just doing one aspect at a high level, now they've got to be able to do a lot of different things at a really high level."
Both Perry and senior forward Lauren Gural, who averaged 6.1 points and 5.4 rebounds last year, were shocked by Hunter's resignation, but both have confidence in Waters, and in their teammates.
"It was definitely a surprise, (but) it's a new year and a new season and a new coach, so we've just got to keep moving forward," Gural said. "… We all respond to (Waters) well. We know that he knows what he's talking about. We trust him."
Gural wasn't surprised by the predicted third-place finish, but she's not willing to settle for such a result, either.
"It's more of an uphill battle this year, but we're definitely up for it. We're ready," Gural said. "People always want to come and beat us, just because of what we've done in the past and our success. We've just got to work harder."
The CNU men are led by returning senior guard Conley Taylor, who averaged 23 points per game last year, and sophomore guard Tra Benefield, the USA South rookie of the year after averaging 16 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
"As every coach will tell you, it's the standing at the end of the season that matters," Krikorian said. "We're definitely excited about our team and our returning players, as well as some of the new guys that we brought in."
Members of CNU's eight-man freshman class will have to contribute in light of two offseason losses. Senior guard Hector Feliciano-Ayala tore his ACL during summer play and isn't expected to return, while sharpshooting senior Jake Capin is unable to practice after suffering a concussion in a pickup game. His status is uncertain.
Taylor, a former standout at Menchville High, said he's 90 percent healthy after severely spraining his right ankle and chipping a bone in last year's regular-season finale. Forced to watch as the Captains exited the conference tournament in the semifinals last year, Taylor has bigger plans for this season.
"It was the worst timing possible. I just don't even have words to explain that feeling," Taylor said. "I was lost. I was hurting. But it just made me have more to avenge for this year. … We're going to win the conference, and we'll see how far we get in the (NCAA) tournament."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun