By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE — It turns out Bart Walker was the right hire.
Last April, Walker inherited a 14-13 NWF State program, a bottom dweller in the Panhandle Conference and a short recruiting season. He and his staff – Matt Shewmake and Zack Banks – immediately went to work.
The recruiting class was restructured. Chemistry was built. A defensive identity surfaced.
Befitting of a program facing turnover on the coaching bench, adversity came in droves. Yet the Raiders battled in the toughest conference in the land for a 7-6 record, an at-large NJCAA tournament bid and an Elite Eight finish to cap a 24-7 campaign.
Flash forward to now, not even 20 months into his second tenure in Niceville, Walker and his Raiders are national-title contenders at No. 2 in the preseason NJCAA Division I poll.
"What we've established is the foundation for the program to be successful," Walker said.
The Raiders have company in the national ranks among their Panhandle rivals.
There's Gulf Coast State at No. 3, defending national champion Tallahassee at 5, Chipola at 8 and Pensacola State at 25. Yep, ALL five Panhandle teams are ranked.
"I'm going to be comfortably honest and say this conference is better than last year," Walker said. "Gulf Coast State has some nice pieces and is improved and Chipola is back up after a down year. Tallahassee looks good, too, and Pensacola, if they can stay healthy they'll be right there."
For any other conference, five teams ranked in the top 25 would be noteworthy. For the Panhandle Conference, it's business as usual.
After all, it's a league that owns three straight national titles. NWF State is looking to extend the streak to four.
The talent level is certainly there, despite the Raiders losing University of Texas transfer Rellah Boothe to a season-ending ACL injury in the offseason.
Returning are Georgia Gayle, Awa Trasi and Leandri Echi, all who "played significant minutes last year." A healthy Jaiden McCoy will join the trio in the starting lineup after a fractured hip ended her season early last year.
Paired with a talented recruiting class that includes Stetson transfer Shania Meertens and East Tennessee State transfer Alayjah Sherer, the Raiders have a roster that can run as deep as 10 contributors.
"We had a pretty good recruiting year," Walker said. "Last year we primarily played seven women and this year we can go eight, nine, 10," Walker said. "It's good to have several players back and then you can integrate that new talent. We had a setback with Rellah tearing her ACL and that's going to have a significant impact on the team, but we have some returners and transfers that will take some significant steps.
In terms of the Raiders' identity, their defensive roots remain in pressing full court, employing half-court traps and relying on turnovers to feed an up-tempo offense. The team's length will help that.
"We'll keep it mixed up and play different defenses and evolve a little bit there," Walker said.
Offensively, the Raiders are looking to avoid the lulls that plagued them last year en route to 58.5 points per game, a 39.8 shooting percentage from the floor and a 25.7 shooting from beyond the arc in conference play.
"We have different kinds of weapons this year and we're a little more athletic," Walker said. "Shooters are going to go through their slumps, but we want to be able to score inside and have a better post presence. We'll still play up-tempo and hopefully we can put the ball in the hoop."
Now a look at this year's Raiders ...
Walker: "She's a really good shooter and she's evolved into attacking the basket. She still needs to work on becoming a better on-the-ball-defender and also with consistency."
Leandra Echi, 5-6 sophomore guard from New York
Walker: "Super competitive and quick. She's a great on-the-ball defender. Her game has evolved at the point guard position and she's becoming more of a shooter."
Shania Meertens, 5-8 sophomore guard and Stetson transfer
Walker: "Super athletic. Great scorer off the bounce. Great off-the-ball defender. The big thing is making her maintain consistency and work on her perimeter shot and as a scorer off the dribble."
Awa Trasi, 6-2 sophomore forward from France
Jaiden McCoy, 6-3 redshirt sophomore from Tennessee
Walker: "She's done a great job of becoming healthy. She's played only three, four games over the last three years with her hip injury last year and her concussion in high school. Understandably, Jaiden is still trying to get her basketball timing and feel back. She was limited this summer because of her hip and didn't have full contact. So now we're getting her acclimated. But she's very physical and she understands the game well."
Alayjah Sherer, 5-11 sophomore guard and an East Tennessee State transfer
Walker: "Plays multiple positions inside-out, can play with her back to back basket. She just needs to get better defensively and keep working on her consistency."
Arielle Wilson, 6-6 freshman forward/center from Fayetteville, N.C.
Anastasiia Zakharova, 5-9 sophomore guard from Russia
Walker: "She's had a major improvement in shooting the ball, and she's shooting really well now. She's extremely athletic, a good defender. It's just about her becoming more consistent and playing within her abilities and not trying to force anything."
Gabriela Sales, 6-0 freshman from Brazil
Walker: "She's a really nice freshman. She shoots the ball well and she's great off the drive. She has great floor vision, she's athletic and continues to evolve. We just need for her to evolve with the language, but she's understanding more and more."
Cece Mayo, 5-9 sophomore guard/forward and Albany transfer
Walker: "Athletic, agile player who can play multiple positions – the 3 and the 4. At Albany she showed great athleticism defensively and attacks the rim. At Albany she played more minutes at the 4, so now it's just about evolving her perimeter game, her face-up game."