Returning four starters from a team which posted a 23-8 record last season, Northeastern A&M Lady Norse head coach Jim Rowland is excited to be starting the basketball season at 6 p.m. Monday.

“Not only are we getting to play in the NEO Fieldhouse in our season opener, but it's against one of our oldest rivalries in Crowder College,” Rowland said. “After all, playing in the NEO Fieldhouse will be a new experience for all 13 of our players too.”

The Lady Norse returned to the newly renovated NEO Fieldhouse this past Monday after a flood on July 4, 2007, closed the facility and forced all basketball games to be played in the Student Activity Center.

“We've had a couple of good practice sessions on the new court,” Rowland said. “It feels good to be back home.”

Last season under Rowland's guidance, the Lady Norse finished third in the Eastern Division of the Bi-State Athletic Conference with a 5-3 record.

The Lady Norse advanced to the semifinals of the Region II Tournament in Shawnee before suffering a 98-80 loss to the Arkansas-Fort Smith Lady Lions.

During Rowland's three seasons as head coach, the Lady Norse have a 70-25 overall record.

“Our strength as a team going into this season is the experience we've got coming back in the post position,” Rowland said. “We've got 6-2 and 5-10 sophomores coming back along with a 6-5 freshman girl from Serbia and two other 6-foot freshmen.

“We've also got a 6-5 girl (Andrea Moreno) from Brazil that will join us after the first half of the season,” Rowland said. “So we should really have a solid front line.”

Returning in the post positions are veterans Nolisha Markham and Skye Rees.

Markham (5-10 of Tulsa East Central) averaged 10.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in 31 games last season.

Rees (6-0 of Melbourne, Australia) averaged 9.5 points and 4.9 rebounds in 29 games as a freshman.

Expecting to see playing time at the post positions are freshmen Jelena Cerina (6-5 of Serbia), Phyleice Beaver (5-11 of Houston, Texas) and Alizandra Odell (6-0 of Joplin, Mo.).

Odell signed with Pittsburg (Kan.) State University, but did not play last year.

“The bulk of our scoring should come from our inside game,” Rowland said. “All of these players have the ability to shoot the basketball.”

While the Lady Norse feature size along the front line, the point guard position will be filled by a freshman. Kashei Hopkins (5-7 of Rockwall, Va.) has the inside track to run the Lady Norse offense.

“Right now she's showing she can come out and run this team,” Rowland said. “She has the speed and quickness to go with sound ball handling skills.”

“Usually I return a veteran point guard, but this year I didn't,” Rowland said. “So we're grooming two freshmen to assume the responsibility of running our team.”

Freshman Carla McKinney (5-4 of Desoto, Texas) has been sharing playing time with Hopkins at point guard.

“Carla was part of a team that finished second in Class 4A in Texas,” Rowland said. “So there are still some things she has to learn about playing at this level.”

Pre-season National Junior College Athletic Association All-American Megan Fraley (5-7 of Adair) returns as the Lady Norse shooting guard. Fraley led the Lady Norse with a 14.5 scoring mark while grabbing 6.5 rebounds per game with 91 assists and 54 steals.

“Megan is an extremely versatile player that could even play on the point if we needed it,” Rowland said. “She shot almost 50 percent from the field last year (154 of 334) while also leading the team in assists and steals.”

Freshmen Brittany Woodard (5-8 of Houston, Texas) and Kayla Cady (5-7 of Ponca City) provide depth at shooting guard.

Cady is a member of the Lady Norse volleyball team and has yet to practice her basketball skills.

“Both of these freshmen are long and quick,” Rowland said. “They're still trying to understand the role they play with this team.”

Returning at the three-guard spot is sophomore Kali Bassett (5-8 of Grove). Last season Bassett connected on 49 of 163 from 3-point range while averaging 5.1 points per game. She grabbed an average of 1.4 rebounds with 18 assists and 24 steals.

Freshmen Ashley Mekeel (5-9 of Snow, Okla.) and Krishenda Doss (5-9 of Mesquite, Texas) are challenging for playing time at the three-guard position.

“Ashley averaged 19 points in high school, but she's been slowed by a hip flexor,” Rowland said. “But of these girls are trying to learn that they have to pick of the pace a little bit to play at this level.”

“Even though most of our guards are interchangeable, we still lack a lot of experience on the perimeter,” Rowland said.

“Defensively, we're going to mix-and-match a little more than we have in the past,” Rowland said. “We're also going to play a lot more 2-3 zone than we ever have.

“We can't afford to have our big girls in foul trouble,” Rowland said. “So we'll start out in man and make switches as the game goes on.”