AIKEN -- USC Aiken's women's basketball team made last season's preseason coaches poll look silly.
The Lady Pacers were picked to finish last, but proved to be one of the surprise teams in the conference.
The voters didn't make the same mistake this year as Phil Stern's team is ranked third in the Peach Belt's preseason poll.
The Lady Pacers open theirseason tonight in the USC Aiken Tipoff Classic when they play host to Limestone at 7:30 p.m. They play Fayetteville State (N.C.) at 4 p.m. Saturday.
"I have two expectations for this year's team," Stern said. "One is that we put ourselves in position to win every night out on the floor. Two, that we put ourselves in a position to win the Peach Belt Championship. And you cannot have one without the other."
Stern has good reason to be optimistic.
In his first year, the Lady Pacers finished a dismal 0-16 in Peach Belt play.
After being picked to finish last out of 12 teams last year, Aiken ended up fourth in the North Division and seventh overall with a 15-12 mark, 7-9 in the conference.
As a result, Stern earned conference coach of the year while freshman point guard Jami Cornwell garnered freshman of the year honors.
Obviously, no one outside of Stern's staff knew what kind of talent he'd found during the recruiting season.
Cornwell (14.9 ppg) earned first team all conference honors while Janell Gerk (15.3) made the second team after leading all Division II players in 3-point field goals.
Stern also received strong play from Telma Ferreira, Allison Nold and the lone returning starter from 1998, Dana Richter.
All five players return this season as does the productive sixth player off the bench, Jessica Greiner. And with only two seniors on this year's team, Aiken fans can likely look for a string of successful seasons.
"We realize that we must work hard in practice and perform each time out or we can be beat," Stern said. "If I coached another 40 years, I would not have a group of young ladies as close as this team is."
Still at the top of the conference is Columbus State and Kennesaw State. But Stern may have put the Lady Pacers over the top when he landed yet another stellar recruiting class this spring, landing two Division I transfers. One of those was Julie Szabo, the nation's 12th leading scorer last season.
Szabo (21 ppg) transfers from Stony Brook University in New York along with teammate Cortney Ray (9.3). The two add a potent punch to an already explosive team.
"There are no egos on this team, and as a coach, that's a pleasure," Stern said. "We expect Julie Szabo to have the same impact this year that Jami Cornwell had on this program last year. She won't get 25 shots a game like she did last season, but that's fine with her. She just wants to do whatever it takes to win."
Reach Patrick Green at (803) 648-1395.