CANTON  There is plenty to be excited about for the Malone women’s basketball team as the Pioneers return to the court after their first Great Midwest Athletic Conference Championship and appearance in the NCAA Division II tournament appearance one season ago.

This season begins with lofty expectations for a team that went 23-7 last season and was 12-2 in G-MAC play.

After winning 23 of its final 26 games, Malone has many key pieces returning this winter.

Head coach Rick Tice will rely on a mix of local products and transfers, including the team’s lone senior, former Lake standout Baylen Dyrlund.

"Having those experienced seniors making good decisions was very important in those close games down the stretch," Tice said. "After November, when we got a lead in the fourth quarter we were able to finish games. Those seniors, after some struggles early, hopefully created a culture of being competitive and being tough and being able to contend for a conference championship and also the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament."

Tice took over the program last season and helped guide the Pioneers to a win over Division I foe Bowling Green last December, followed by nine straight wins to close the regular season. Although the Pioneers fell to eventual national champion Ashland in the Midwest Regional quarterfinals, the momentum from the season seems to have carried over to the new campaign.

Six seniors from that team are gone, but Dyrlund is back, along with First Team All-G-MAC selections Rachel Goddard and Hannah McCue. Dyrlund, a second team All-G-MAC performer last season, averaged 12.2 points and 6.4 rebounds and shot a team-best 47.4 percent from the floor. She’s the team’s top returning scorer.

"Baylen's proved herself to be very good inside," Tice said. "Her foot work is really good and she can also step out and shoot the three. Rebounding wise, she does a great job and her experience is crucial to our success."

Alongside Dyrlund, Malone will look to junior guard Chrissie Vaughan, who's started 53 games over the last two seasons and averaged 8.3 points per game last winter. She led the team with 62 three-pointers and is likely to see her role expand this year as well after being the fourth scoring option a season ago.

Tice described her as one of the squad’s best defenders, but noted that she’ll need to step up her game offensively to fill the voids left by graduation. She should have help from sophomore Holly Groff, who played in all 30 games last season and was named to the G-MAC All-Freshman Team. Geoff is projected to be the starting point guard and take the reins of the Malone offense.

"Holly played limited minutes last season, but her experience playing in those big games, even though it may have been off the ball, will hopefully carry over to this year," Tice said. "She had a really good summer and is playing really well in practice, so we're expecting her to be a very efficient point guard."

Other players, such as junior Naomi Grandison, will fill in the front court alongside Dyrlund. Grandson hit the game-winner against Ursuline in the G-MAC championship game last season and will try to add to that resume this season.

Sophomore guards Dani Drayer and Sydney Foster will provide depth at guard off the bench and both played in a reserve capacity last season.

The defense should once again be a strong suit for a team that allowed just 60.9 points a game and had the number two field goal percentage defense in the Midwest Region last season, holding opponents to 36-percent shooting.

"We've just got to keep getting better defensively as we did last year. We just need to play good defense and not give up easy baskets," Tice said.

Part of that defensive success stemmed from the fact that Malone ranked second in the conference in rebounding, while also averaging 72.8 points per game and finishing seventh in the nation with nine made 3-pointers per game. The primary goal for the team this season, according to their second-year head coach, is to reach the NCAA tournament again.

The road to the postseason includes a conference that added five new teams to the mix. Malone was picked fifth among the 13 teams in the preseason coaches poll, with Ursuline and Cedarville tabbed as the two favorites.

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