A year ago, the Elon University women’s basketball team was preparing for its first season under head coach Charlotte Smith. The team was still learning the system and pattern Smith brought in. Now, as the second year of the Charlotte Smith era is set to commence, preparation has been a bit different.

“The players have now gotten acclimated to our style of play and our tempo of the game,” Smith said. “That will help us see improvements this season.”

Last season under the former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill standout player and assistant coach, the Phoenix finished with an overall record of 16-14, going 12-8 in the Southern Conference, but lost in the first round of the SoCon tournament to Samford University.

This year, the Phoenix will look to improve on those numbers by not only having learned the pace and style of Smith’s game, but also by being healthy out of the gate.

“We improve on last year just by being healthy,” Smith said. “We started out early in the season last year just really struggling with a lot of injuries. If we can stay healthy, we’ll already be a better team than we were last year.”

The Phoenix was chosen to finish fifth in the SoCon in both the coaches’ poll and the media poll while coaches also selected seniors Ali Ford and Kelsey Evans to the preseason all-conference team.

But Smith said the preseason polls are just “predictions” and doesn’t give them much merit.

“I take them with a grain of salt,” she said. “We have words of affirmation we say every day before practice. Our words of affirmation last year were, ‘We control our destiny.’ That’s what I believe. I’m not going to let a preseason poll determine our destiny because we determine our destiny.”

Evans takes a similar approach to the preseason predictions.

“I know we’ve been picked fifth in the conference,” she said. “But we have higher expectations for ourselves. Seeing the rankings just kind of pushes us.”

As for Ford and Evans being selected to the preseason all-conference team, Smith is “excited” to see their names on the list. But she said she knows it’s about more than just them if the Phoenix wants to be successful this season.

“It’s exciting for both of those girls to have been picked preseason all-conference,” Smith said. “But Coach (Sylvia) Hatchell (head coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) used to say, ‘You only go as far as your team goes.’ We have to do a good job collectively as a team for us to succeed and for them to succeed individually.”

Early in the season, the Phoenix will be challenged with two games on the road against two teams from power-six conferences. It  will face the Southeastern Conference’s University of South Carolina and the Atlantic Coast Conference’s North Carolina State University. Last year, the Phoenix didn’t take on a team of this high caliber. This season, there are two.

“We want to challenge ourselves,” Smith said. “They’ll be tough games but they’ll be games that we’ll use as a learning experience and we can learn areas in which we need to improve upon. That, and learn things that we are doing well.”

Evans, a native of Raleigh, is particularly excited about returning home to take on North Carolina State University in the historic Reynolds Coliseum Dec. 9.

“I’ve been waiting for this game for three years,” Evans said. “I’ve wanted to play this since I got here. I’m really excited to go to Raleigh because that’s where I’m from and where all of my support is, so I’m really excited to go back there and play and hopefully we’ll have a big crowd there for us.”

Before going to Raleigh, the Phoenix will be tested with two early season Southern Conference matchups against Western Carolina University on the road Dec. 3 and College of Charleston at home Dec. 12.

Although Smith said she doesn’t know why those two early games are scheduled when they are, she knows it’s her job to have her team ready to compete.

“Preferably, you would like to start conference play at the end of December, but the scheduling is up to the league and it’s just up to me as a coach to have my team prepared and ready to go,” Smith said. “The schedule is what it is. We just have to be prepared and ready to go and let the chips fall where they may.”

With two early matchups against teams selected in the middle of the pack this season in the conference preseason polls, Smith doesn’t think these two games will be an indication of where her team sits for the rest of the season, as the games are too early in the season and the team is still getting back in the swing of things.

“These are too early in the year to tell if this will be an indication,” she said. “We played our best basketball toward the latter part of the season last year and we closed with a four-game winning streak and we were playing really well. It’ll be early, so I don’t think it will determine anything for us.”

The second year of the Smith era also brings her first full recruiting class to the program. This year’s group features four players, three of whom are from the state of North Carolina. Smith said she thinks the freshmen will be able to help the program as soon as this season starts.

“There’s a learning curve for all of them,” Smith said. “I’m sure eventually down the line this year, they’ll be able to help in some capacity on the floor.”

Smith cited a couple of things she was particularly looking for that she feels she found in her recruiting class.

“I was looking for toughness, athleticism, coachability, just a lot of intangible things that you don’t see on the stat sheets,” Smith said. “We’re trying to play an up-tempo, fast-break style of basketball, so we were looking for athleticism.”

In the class, Smith brought in three guards: Lauren Hudson of Raleigh, Nicole Razor, from Stone Mountain, Ga. and Jessica Farmer from Asheville.

The lone forward in the class is Autumn Carter from Reidsville. Carter is the tallest player on the team, standing at 6 feet, 5 inches tall.

“You can’t teach size,” Smith said. “We definitely wanted to bring in some size and not only does she have great size, she’s a great defensive presence and she’s able to run the floor very well.”

Each of the other three freshmen brings something different to the table for the Phoenix that Smith said she feels will help the team immensely.

For Hudson, it’s the athleticism.

“Lauren Hudson is an athlete,” Smith said. “I saw Lauren Hudson do jump ball for her team this year and she’s a guard. You don’t see guards doing jump balls and she just brings a lot of athleticism to the game.”

According to Smith, Farmer is the all-around player in the class.

“Farmer can do it all,” Smith said. “She can rebound, she can block shots, she can score. She just works really hard on the floor.”

[box]Elon Phoenix Women's Basketball Coach: Charlotte Smith (second year, 16-14 all-time) Last Season: 16-14 overall (12-8 in SoCon), lost in Southern Conference tournament first round Players Lost: G Jermile' Batten, G Kallie Hovatter, G Aiesha Harper, F Erica Keto (graduation), C Lisa Archie News Players: G Lauren Hudson, G Nicole Razor, G Jessica Farmer, F Autumn Carter[/box]

As for Razor, Smith already has a phrase in mind when she thinks of her: Razor Speed.

“Razor brings a lot speed,” Smith said. “Razor speed and toughness to the game.”

Now as a senior and in her second season under Smith, Evans feels like her experience has been able to help the freshmen transition to the program be an easy one.

“It’s always hard coming in as a freshman because you don’t know any of the players or any of the offense,” Evans said. “Last year, with the new coaching staff, we were all kind of new to that, but now, having a year under my belt, I’ve been able to help guide the freshmen and help them understand what they need to be doing. They’re already doing a great job of getting acclimated, though, and doing the things they need to do.”

Last season with Smith at the helm, Elon won 16 games, which is the most wins by a first year head coach in program history. Another year for the team to become accustomed with the system Smith runs should bring more favorable results come season’s end five months from now.

This season, Evans and the team hope to improve on those 16 wins and, hopefully, will have something else to talk about in March.

“Obviously a conference championship,” she said.

That would be a good result Smith’s second time around.