Senior Holly Thomas, left, and teammates Shelbi Moore and Danielle Pounds, right, will be key pieces to this year's team.

Houston girls’ basketball coach Brent Kell is admittedly optimistic heading into each season. This year, he believes there is evidence to support his positive outlook.

The Lady Tigers return all the key pieces from last year’s team, headlined by double-double machine Holly Thomas and point guard Kendra Welch. Houston had a strong summer that has carried over into its preseason practices.

All points that Kell believes are reasons the 2008-’09 campaign will be better than the 10-15 mark the Lady Tigers posted last year.

Houston opens its new season Monday at Eminence.

“I can’t help but believe we’ll be a better team that we were last year,” Kell said. “I may get rudely surprised, but I think we’ll be better at our overall game.”

Kell’s optimism begins with seniors Thomas and Welch. Each three-year starters, they were unanimous selections to the all-conference team as juniors. Junior Danielle Pounds and sophomore Sarah Pierce return to the starting lineup, and Erica Keeney will start at power forward for departed senior Kate Harper.

Senior Megan Kell will provide frontcourt depth off the bench, and Shelbi Moore and Tory Burgess will bolster the backcourt. Jessica Herndon and Kelsey Adey will split time between the varsity and JV.

Brent Kell said this group plays well together. He expects this year’s team to rebound well and be strong shooters from the perimeter.

“This team is going to hustle and play hard. I don’t think we have to worry about that,” Kell said. “If they don’t, there’s a spot next to me on the bench because we have enough kids to come in and do the job.”

Thomas, a 5-foot-10 center, will again be the cornerstone of the team. She averaged 13.7 points on 49-percent shooting, 11.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks en route to first-team all-conference honors last year.

Kell said Thomas, the team’s leading scorer the past two years, is even better going into her senior season.

“You can expect to see a more focused, physical player who has also developed a 15-foot jump shot,” Kell said. “She’s still going to rebound and if she can stay focused on the defensive end, she’s going to be tough.”

Thomas will be flanked in the frontcourt by Keeney, an athletic sophomore who came on strong at the end of last year. She had eight points in the Lady Tigers’ district-opening victory against Liberty.

“She’s one of the best rebounders for underclassmen that I’ve seen,” Kell said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she and Holly don’t average close to 10 rebounds apiece.”

Welch and Pounds give Houston a pair of dangerous perimeter shooters. Welch made a team-high 47 3-pointers last year while averaging 10.1 points, 3.2 assists and 2.1 steals. Pounds made 22 3s and scored 5.2 points per game.

“Kendra is really shooting the ball well – 3-pointers, 15-footers, driving and finishing shots,” Kell said. “I expect her to lead us on and off the court.”

Pierce, who cracked the starting lineup as a freshman after battling through a nagging knee injury, will battle Moore and Burgess for the third starting guard slot. Burgess has been slowed by shin splints that forced her to sit out of practice last week.

With little size, Kell hopes to take advantage of his team’s athleticism and quickness with fullcourt pressure and an uptempo style of play.

“I won’t say we’ll be great, but we can be pretty competitive if things fall into place,” Kell said.

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