By BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
Last year's girls basketball season provided plenty of thrills and ultimately a state championship on each side of the river, as Quincy Notre Dame won its third state title in program history and Marion County claimed its first.
Those teams should be in prime position to defend their titles this season, but they shouldn't be the only squads making some noise this winter. Several area teams appear poised to show improvement in 2011-12, which should help create some more competitive balance throughout the area.
Here are a few storylines to keep your eye on during the 2011-12 season.
Can Hannibal make another stride toward respectability?
When the Lady Pirates defeated Western 43-38 on Dec. 20, it snapped a 30-game losing streak. Hannibal wound up finishing 3-17 last season.
Don't anticipate another double-digit losing streak from Hannibal this season. Although the Lady Pirates still will have an uphill battle in earning their first winning campaign of this millennium, this looks like a team that should be improved.
Guard Krystal Ferguson and center Cassidy Trenhaile, Hannibal's top two scorers from 2010-11, headline a group of four returning starters. In fact, Hannibal returns 89 percent of its scoring from last season.
"The time to turn the program around is now," Hannibal coach Ron Greenwell said.
Will a couple schools with dominant fall programs repeat that success this winter?
Palmyra won its fifth softball state title in school history last month, and Unity matched its deepest run into the volleyball postseason, reaching the Class 1A quarterfinals.
Will success breed success?
Brian Wosman returns as Palmyra's head coach as the replacement for Kent O'Laughlin, who departed after three seasons. Wosman will inherit a team that returns all five of its starters, three of whom (Katie Serbin, Alexis Van Nostrand and Evie Miles) started on Palmyra's softball team. Three other softball players should see a lot of minutes off the bench. That experience should help Palmyra improve on its fourth-place finish in last year's Clarence Cannon Conference standings.
The Lady Mustangs also return all their starters off the team that went 15-10 last season, including four -- Rachel Rush, Brooklyn Moore, Kylee Churchill and Breanne Begeman -- who played prominent roles on the volleyball team. That quartet is familiar with winning, and it could help the Lady Mustangs secure their first regional title since 2008.
Which team could take the area by surprise?
Monroe City showed early last season that it was capable of taking down quality opponents, as it defeated Liberty-Payson and Scotland County in December. Those two opponents finished with a combined record of 41-17.
The Lady Panthers, meanwhile, struggled a bit against Clarence Cannon Conference foes and finished at 14-10. That's still not a bad mark, considering Monroe City had no seniors in 2010-11.
Five-foot-5 junior guard Carly Spalding will spearhead a lineup that doesn't feature a lot of height but could have enough speed and athleticism to allow Monroe City to play a bigger factor in the CCC this season.
Who will challenge Marion County's Jessica Redd for Player of the Year?
Any time the reigning Player of the Year returns the following season, that player has to be viewed as a favorite to repeat as the award winner. Such is the case with Redd, Marion County's 6-foot-1 senior center who averaged 21.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game last year.
However, Redd won't have a clear path to the award. QND's star triumvirate of Jordan Frericks, Tori Kuhn and Kassidy Gengenbacher also have to be among the preseason favorites for the award.
Also keep your eye on a couple other players from Missouri.
Highland's junior point guard Ashton Luttrull (18 ppg, 7 rpg in 2010-11) seems poised for a breakout season. And senior point guard Randi Lee Plunkett, Redd's teammate at Marion County, is a stat-sheet stuffer who averaged 13 points per game and more than 4.5 rebounds, assists and steals per game last season.
Those players should provide the area with plenty of individual star power in addition to the team success that the area should produce again this year.