With four starters returning to the Fullerton women’s basketball program for the 2006-07 season, Head Coach Maryalyce Jeremiah has high hopes for a Titan squad that boasts the most experienced starting lineup in the Big West Conference.

Yet, while the Titans (7-10 overall, 2-2 in the Big West) return five of their top six scorers from last season, they lack size in their experienced players. Aside from sophomore forward Toni Thomas’ 8.7 rebounds a game, the only other legitimate Titan presence under the boards is senior guard Charlee Underwood. The Titans will have to improve on defense if they expect to beat the sixth place finish predicted by the preseason coaches’ poll.

“Our team slogan for the year is ‘Our time is now,'” Jeremiah said. “That should summarize what we are hoping will be a very positive outcome this year. One thing is obvious; we do have experience on our side. I was pleased with our finish last year, although far from satisfied. What I have been waiting for is this year to see how we will do with the experience, the depth and the size.”

Last season, the Titans finished with an overall record of 11-17 and were part of a four-way tie for third place in the Big West with a conference record of 7-7. But the Titans eventually lost to Northridge (5-10, 2-1 Big West) in the quarterfinals, despite a game-high 24 points by Thomas. Northridge was able to out-rebound the Titans, who allowed Matador senior guard LaJoyce King to grab 13 of Northridge’s 37 boards.

“One of the things that has hurt us in the past three years is our lack of size,” Jeremiah said. “The extent to which this size will impact our season will be directly proportionate to how fast we can get [the less experienced players] ready for more than a few minutes of playing time.”

The Matadors have improved under the basket this conference season, but still lack any dominant threats. While Thomas leads the Big West in defensive rebounds, Fullerton ranks second to last in defensive rebounding and last in offensive rebounding. The Titans are also dead last in blocked shots per game.

Sophomore forward/center Salote Tupou ranks seventh on the team in scoring and fifth in rebounds per game, but if Jeremiah’s hopes to improve her squad under the boards, then the 2006-07 freshmen recruiting class will have step in at times to nab crucial boards as they average just under 6’2″ a pop.

“Having our freshmen being the bulk of the size for the Titans is probably more of a blessing than a hurt,” Jeremiah said. “We will use them as they are ready to help us win. As they learn the level they must play in Division I, they will gain confidence. When that happens, we will have the size as well as the perimeter shooting experience and speed that will make us a more complete team.”

In the meantime, Fullerton will have to continue to key on the athleticism of Thomas who leads the Big West in scoring with 296 points, averaging 17.4 per game. The Big West Freshman of the Year in 2005-06 will have to carry the Titans on her shoulders if they hope to improve upon their 2-2 conference record.

“[Thomas] is a gifted athlete. Her speed, athleticism, shooting and rebounding help to make her a complete player,” Jeremiah said. “Sometimes the second year, for someone who does so well in the first year, is more difficult, but I think [she] knows how much her team depends on her and she seems to be up to the challenge. She will need to constantly add to her game and she seems to be doing that early. [Thomas] is definitely the key to our success this year.”

Complimenting Thomas in the backcourt, Underwood has averaged 4.7 rebounds, 14.8 points, a .418 field goal percentage and 11 blocks a game – all good for second best on the Titans. The San Francisco, Calif., native led Fullerton in scoring last year and her play in the preseason was typical of her consistent play. Underwood is currently fifth in the Big West in points per game and her shooting percentage ranks ninth in the Big West overall. But the Titans benefit the most from Underwood’s precision three-point shooting as she ranks fourth in the conference with a .371 three-point shooting percentage, sinking an average 2.06 treys a game.

While the Titans’ 6-7 preseason record appears mediocre on paper, their schedule featured top opponents like UCLA (9-9), Nebraska (13-3) and Colorado (7-6). Jeremiah saw the tough schedule as a chance to improve her younger players and allow them to find playing time before the conference season.

“This year’s preconference schedule is the strongest one we have ever played,” Jeremiah said. “I have been asked often this year ‘why?’ and I will say what I truly believe, ‘to be the best you have to play and beat the best.’ All of our preconference games are to prepare us for the Big West conference which, to us, is the road to post-season play. ”

Fullerton started the conference season against Cal Poly (5-10, 1-3 Big West) at home on Dec. 28, posting a 64-49 win over the Mustangs thanks to a game-high 19 points from Underwood supported by Thomas’ 16 and senior guard Andrea Adams’ 13. Adams shot a spotless six-of-six from the field. The Titans were able to control the battle for the boards, grabbing 34 rebounds as opposed to the Mustangs’ 32. The Titans were able to shoot 50 percent from the field while holding the Mustangs to a measly 34.8 percent.

Santa Barbara proved more difficult for the Titans, who were handed their first conference loss, 73-71. The Gauchos were able to come from behind after being down by six points at the end of the first half, thanks to grabbing 12 more rebounds than the Titans down the stretch.

Fullerton bounced back against Northridge to record its second conference win in another high scoring match, 78-73, but the Titans could not string together back-to-back wins in Stockton, Calif., where they lost 61-53 after a late Tiger surge.