Gaston & Catawba

Crusader women coming off special season

The 2013-14 season was magical for the Belmont Abbey women’s basketball team and first-year head coach Jason Williams – a 22-9 record, second place in Conference Carolinas and reaching the second round of the NCAA Division II Tournament.

This year, the Crusaders return just two starters, but those two – senior forward McKenzie Owen and junior guard Morgan Midkiff – were the team’s leading scorers, and there are a handful of significant returners plus a deep recruiting class in play. Belmont Abbey opens the season Nov. 14 against Newberry in Hartsville.

Owen led the Crusaders with 17.8 points and 7.2 rebounds and was a first-team All-Conference Carolinas selection last season, while Midkiff earned second-team honors, scoring 15.2 points and dishing out 4.6 assists.

“They bring scoring in different areas, which helps our versatility,” said Williams, who was the conference coach of the year. “McKenzie is a low-post presence and can score posting up and off offensive rebounds, while Morgan is a perimeter threat but also has the ability to score in spurts because of her shooting and ability to drive with the ball.”

Also returning are key contributors Tajanna Brown (6.6 points per game ), Caitlyn Ranson (4.3), Ashia Holmes (4.4), Amari Moreland (2.8) and Marilyn Malphrus (2.0).

Williams also has a large number of newcomers he expects to contribute. That group includes Clayton State transfer Gabrielle Bethel, a 5-foot, 11-inch forward, plus freshmen Briana Grier and Jayneisha Davis, who will compete for time at the point guard. Also in the mix will be 6-foot, 2-inch freshman Taylor Gittings, who Williams says has the ability to be strong, with her height and athletic ability.

“This team has unlimited potential,” Williams said. “They’re a good group and we’re pushing them because I feel we can be really, really good.”

Men’s team

The Martin Unger era starts for the men’s team, as the former assistant takes over the head-coaching duties from Stephen Miss, who resigned after seven years to concentrate fully on his athletic director duties.

Unger inherits a young team with just one senior and one junior on the roster. He will lean heavily on his senior, point guard Justin Kuhlman, who is the team’s leading returning scorer (11.1 points) and started all 27 games last season.

Sophomore Ray Chen also returns. The former Gaston Day star averaged 9.4 points but topped the 20-point mark in the team’s final two games of last season.

Sophomores Drexler Clark (5.9 points per game) and Tyler Horn (1.2) also saw action in all 27 games in 2013-14, and Unger will have seven freshmen plus a transfer who will vie for minutes.

The transfer, Robbie Sterling, from Johnson & Wales, is a former East Gaston product, while freshmen 6-foot, 10-omcj Nicholas Fullard has a chance to be special, according to Unger.

The Crusaders start the season Nov. 14 against Mars Hill at Wingate University. For Unger, although this is his first head-coaching job, he said he has been a coach for 19 years and is ready for the opportunity.

“I personally recruited all but, I think, two of this team,” Unger said, “but we are young, so the staff is having to do a lot of teaching. All the kids we brought in are extremely talented; we just have to work each day to get better and compete every day.”