What a difference a year makes.

One season after finishing the regular as Big West co-champions, the Long Beach State women’s basketball team looks to be a shadow of its former self. The 49ers carried a 3-11 record into Big West play and have struggled to find a rhythm in preseason contests.

“We didn’t expect to have 13 new players this year,” Head Coach Mary Hegarty said. “But we have responded well to failure and I’ve seen a lot of growth and we’re moving forward.”

Of the eight Big West teams, only Irvine has posted a poorer nonconference record than the Beach (3-13 overall, 0-2 in the Big West) and the squad has only one senior on board. This has helped translate into the conference’s worst scoring offense at just over 50 points per game along with the worst field goal percentage.

“We try to run a motion offense and we need to be able to make reads and you need experience,” Hegarty said. “Our youth and struggling offense go together.”

Junior guard Tyresha Calhoun has made an immediate impact after transferring from Riverside Community College to run the point for the 49ers. Calhoun has emerged as one of the conference’s best perimeter defenders and leads the squad in assists.

Joining Calhoun in the backcourt is sophomore Karina Figueroa, who has emerged as the offensive catalyst. The Corona native’s 12.1 points per game ranks 14th in the conference and she tallied 15 and 14 points in victories against UC Davis and Fairfield two weeks ago.

“We all expected a great year from [Figueroa],” Hegarty said. “She has benefited as a freshman from being the third option and she keeps getting better.”

Completing the three-guard lineup for the 49ers is freshman Lauren Sims, who has earned 10 starts in her first season with the program. Sims ranks second on the team averaging eight points per game and is also third in minutes.

Leading the way in the frontcourt is sophomore center Kaiti O’Brien and her team-high 5.0 rebounds per game. Freshman forward Ally Wade has shown she can be an impact player, netting a career high 20 points and hitting four of eight three-point attempts against Fairfield.

Hegarty is in her fourth year at the helm of the Beach and was named the 2006 Big West Coach of the Year after leading her squad to a share of the conference crown. She has helped make Long Beach a perennial contender in the Big West, but is off to the worst start of her career.

“She is a great coach and more than anything she is fair,” Figueroa said. “She is a good teacher and doesn’t get down on you.”

The 49ers appear to be righting the ship just as conference play nears, putting together a season-high two-game winning streak to close 2006. The pair of victories coincided with the emergence of sophomore guard Lakin Saucedo, who totaled eight points and six rebounds – both career highs – against Davis and earned her first career start against Fairfield.

Due to their offensive struggles, the 49ers have been forced to step up their effort on the defensive end and turned in two of their best defensive performances of the season during their two-game streak. Long Beach held the Aggies under 30 percent shooting for the game and jumped out to an early first half lead against Fairfield after holding the Stags to six-of-31 shooting before halftime.

“Mary [Hegarty] always has her teams playing great basketball at the right time and I don’t think this year will be any different,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said.

Hegarty’s squads have always been solid defensively and this year’s group is no different as they rank second in the Big West in scoring defense. The youthful frontcourt has been especially strong as the squad is the third best rebounding team in the conference.

“Our defense has been our strong point, but it needs to be more consistent,” Hegarty said.

Despite the poor performance in nonconference play, the 49ers have a decent shot at the Big West crown in the wide-open conference. Long Beach opened the conference slate on the road with a pair of losses against Santa Barbara and Cal Poly as their late-game rallies were overshadowed by large point deficits early on. The 49ers trailed by as many as 23 points in the middle of the second half against Cal Poly and as many as 16 at half against Santa Barbara. While Long Beach managed to score 19 unanswered points in response to Cal Poly’s late 23-point lead, the 49ers will have to find a way to keep the game close in order to capitalize on such potent runs.

The 49ers have been among the Big West’s elite for the past few years after posting 18 wins in 2005-06 and 19 in 2004-2005, but this year’s early indication is that the squad’s youth is too much to overcome the loss of Big West Player of the Year, Crystal McCutcheon, to graduation.

“We still like our chances because we have made steady progress, even our record doesn’t show it,” Hegarty said. “We’ll be a pretty good team by February and March.”