PREVIEW: Women's basketball set to kick off 2015-16 season

PREVIEW: Women's basketball set to kick off 2015-16 season

OCALA--The College of Central Florida women's basketball team is back in the conversation for statewide prominence and for good reason.

A year ago, the Patriots shared the Mid-Florida Conference championship for the first time since 2008 and won a game at the state tournament for the first time since 2011.

This time around, CF returns five sophomores, which includes standouts Thais Oliveira and Marcella Rocha, as it looks to continue its ascension in the state.

"Last year, we took a big step," said Patriots head coach Tommy Jones, one of just three coaches in state history to lead multiple Region 8 programs to the state tournament. "When you have players like Thais and Marcella back, that is a great place to start.

"We've got some excellent pieces in place and I am very excited about our chances. This is a good group of kids and they really have worked very hard."

Oliveira (6-2) and Rocha (5-3) will be joined in the starting lineup by fellow sophomores Briana Mann (5-11), Keaundra Ivory (5-8) and Deja Jeffery (5-5).

Four of the five returning players for CF have starting experience, but the bulk of the experience lies in Oliveira and Rocha. The Brazilian duo led the double-digit turnaround in victories for the Patriots in 2014-15.

Perhaps the biggest win for CF last year took place in the opening round of the state tournament, as Oliveira had a blocked shot as time expired to defeat St. Petersburg College.

After that, Oliveira and the Patriots took NJCAA National Champions Chipola and player of the year Evelyn Akhator down to the waning moments of the second half, before a close loss. 

College recruiters took notice of Oliveira, who averaged a double-double last season and made all-state. She's already been offered by UMass, Tennessee-Martin, Middle Tennessee, Arizona State, South Florida, Florida, East Carolina, Florida Gulf Coast and Florida International.

Rocha, meanwhile, was a first-team all-conference pick and controlled the game in a recent scrimmage against the University of Florida.

Aside from the sophomores, CF has an excellent group of newcomers.

Tayler Miller (5-10), Kiarah Mallory (5-3), Mariah Bankhead (6-1), Fernanda Midaglia (5-8) and Amanda Melosky (5-11) are among the freshmen and tranfers to watch for the Patriots.

With a chance at a return to the postseason very realistic, there is a great deal of excitement around the CF program.

"These kids go to work every day and strive to get better," Jones said. "We want to improve from last year and keep the program going in a positive direction.

"I am proud of the way our kids have responded in practice and I like our chances."

CF opens the regular season with a game against Gulf Coast State on Friday night at 8 p.m. at the Santa Fe Tip-off Classic in Gainesville. Both the Patriots and Commodores lost in last year's state semifinals.

The regular season home opener for CF takes place November 13 against Miami Dade College at 4 p.m. Click here for the complete 2015-16 women's basketball schedule.