TIFTON -- With high hopes for the upcoming season, the 2005-06 Abraham Baldwin College basketball teams will begin play tonight at home. The Fillies and the Stallions will each play the junior varsity teams from Brewton-Parker College.
Head coach Julie Conner and her ABAC Fillies team will play at 5:30 p.m., followed by coach Todd Sheppard and the Stallions at 7:30 p.m.
Sheppard's Stallions will have only one starter returning, Statesboro native Willies Mills. Last season Mills averaged eight points per game and shot 48 percent on his three-point attempts.
Even though only one starter is returning, Sheppard points out that he does have some veteran players coming back.
"We do have several experienced players returning. Michael Sapp, Kevin Green and Chuck Holloway are all back after solid freshman seasons," Sheppard said. "They learned a great deal last year and are ready to take on the challenge that the season will bring."
Even though he did not play for the Stallions last season, former Tift County Blue Devil Stanley Brownlee will also be in the mix.
"He was voted first team all-state in Mississippi last year. He is playing a different position here, but he should do very well in his new surroundings," Sheppard said.
The veterans will be counted on to take the Stallions through what could be a difficult schedule.
"The program is new to so many of our players that I think we are a little behind last year's team that got off to such a fast start, but our talent level has increased. I think our ability to improve as the season progresses is excellent," said Sheppard.
"I have scheduled us an extremely tough pre-conference schedule to get this group ready for conference play. We will play several teams that are ranked in the preseason poll and others that I believe will be ranked when we play them."
That could get the team ready for a Region XVII slate that includes some teams of national prominence.
"Our league boasts three teams ranked in the national preseason poll, No. 6 Coastal Georgia, No. 16 Georgia Perimeter and honorable-mention South Georgia Tech," Sheppard said. "We are picked to finish fourth in the conference and if we are to challenge these programs we need to beat teams like them in the early part of the schedule."
In preparing for the new season, Sheppard feels like his team has had its ups and downs.
"Our team has looked good in practice at times. (Former Westover High player) Brandon Shingles has been excellent at the point position and that makes a huge difference for the overall team," Sheppard said. "John Michael Hall from Colquitt County High School has been slowed by injury but is now back practicing. He missed about two-and-a-half weeks, due to a bone bruise, and that is a tough time to lose valuable practices, but he will develop as the season goes along."
"At times (former Cook Hornet) Michael Sapp has been very good, scoring 39 points in an intrasquad game, and 6-foot-8 Sam Tolbert from Worth County High School is developing into a guy that can be effective in the paint."
The coach added, "There is just so much to learn and some days are better than others, but I feel like this group has a chance to be very competitive if we stay healthy and continue to improve."
All-in-all, Sheppard seems to like his 2005-06 Stallions.
"I am very excited about the season and I think with all the local players, we have the energy surrounding our program is very good. I have enjoyed this team off the court as well," the ABAC head coach said. "We have very nice young men that will represent us well on and off the court. In year three I think we are ready to take the next step in this program's progression. How big of a step? Well, we will see."
The Fillies have All-Conference player Tamara Peterson coming back for her sophomore season. The former Valdosta Lady Wildcat averaged 10.6 points, 4.7 steals, and 4.4 assists per game last season.
She will be joined by Dawson native Brynne Callaway, who is another returning starter.
Callaway led the conference in rebounding with an average of 9.5 boards per game. She also averaged 12.7 points per contest.
Other returnees include Jaquetta Cole, Whitney Dean, Yakia Tripp, Whitney Williams, Fallon Robinson, and Kala Morrison.
Among the freshmen on the team this year is a heavy influx of local players.
Turrelle Jones, a former Cook High Lady Hornet and last season's All-Tiftarea Player of the Year; former Fitzgerald High Lady Hurricane Natavia Jackson, a first-team All-Tiftarea selection last season; and Ashley Stewart, a former Berrien High Rebellette, who was an honorable-mention All-Tiftarea pick last year.
A name familiar to fans of Tift County High basketball, Ray-Donee' Jones from Houston County, is also on the new Fillies roster. Jones was first-team All-Region 1-AAAAA last season.
"We have had some good practices. I am looking forward to the new year," Conner said. "I think we have a chance to be very competitive."
If the preseason national polls are any indication, the top teams in the conference appear to be Georgia Perimeter and Darton. Perimeter is ranked No. 24, while Darton is listed as an honorable-mention selection.
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