MOUNT VERNON – The Rams were the most improved women's basketball team in all of Division III during the 2012-13 season. According to the NCAA record book, Cornell's 14-game improvement is tied for the second-biggest jump – 10-15 to 25-2 – by any DIII women's team in any season.
With all said, expectations inside Brent Brase's program haven't changed a bit. The hype from the outside is quite different.
Cornell starts the new season at No. 20 in the USA Today Sports Division III Top 25 Coaches' Poll, and is No. 25 in the D3hoops.com Top 25 Poll. The Rams are the unanimous favorite to repeat as Midwest Conference champions.
"We will focus on the process, as we've always done," said Brase, who enters his ninth season on the Hilltop. "Our expectations are to work hard, be great teammates, support each other and be the best we can be.
"The team culture is the most important thing. Our culture has been really good the past five years or so, and every year it's getting better. We've continued to add more talented pieces to it. Last season, we had a great team off the court and it carried over to the court."
On the court, the Rams racked up a school-record 25 wins. They captured MWC regular-season and tournament titles and earned the program's first-ever NCAA berth. Cornell's run ended with a 53-52 home loss to St. Thomas in the second round of the NCAA Division III Tournament.
Cornell finished a historic season in the Top 20 of both national polls. It began with an eighth-place preseason projection in its own 11-team conference.
The 2013-14 campaign gets underway this weekend with the annual Cornell Classic. The Rams open against Crown at 6 p.m. Friday. Buena Vista and Clarke play in Friday's second game at 8 p.m. Cornell meets Buena Vista at 2 p.m. Saturday, followed by Crown vs. Clarke at 4 p.m.
Cornell brings back three starters and eight total letterwinners from last year's team that blew through the MWC with a 17-1 mark. Junior Rikki Mulloy (13.4 ppg), a two-time first team all-conference guard, led the conference in free throw percentage (90.4) and drained a team-best 55 3-point goals. She already ranks in the program's top 15 in scoring (761 points) and stands third with 108 career 3-pointers.
Junior center Taylor Dicus (11.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg) earned second team all-MWC honors last season while shattering the school record for field goal percentage (61.4). The 6-foot-2 Dicus recorded seven double-doubles. She'll miss at least the first weekend due to NCAA volleyball regionals.
Versatile forward Kellie Kuzmanic (7.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg) also returns to the starting lineup after a fine freshman campaign in which she tallied a school-record 116 assists and made 38 3-pointers.
Three-year letterwinner Chelsea Harris (6.2 ppg) gives the Rams another capable long-range shooter. She canned 32 treys and was third on the team with 70 assists. Harris joins Caitlin Bisinger as the only seniors on the team. Bisinger is coming back from an injury.
Junior forward India Pearce, sophomore forward Maggie Hogen and 6-3 sophomore Larissa Brewer were key contributors to last season's success. The Rams welcome seven newcomers to the roster, including five freshmen.
Cornell graduated three strong leaders in All-American center Camille Marie, four-year starting guard Kathryn Schilling and part-time starter Leonie de Jonge. Marie is the most decorated player in program history, scoring 1,441 career points and setting a handful of other school marks. She joins the coaching staff this season.
"Every season is different, and we're certainly a different team than last year," Brase said. "What people don't realize is Kelly (Oeltjenbruns) and Renata (Rankin) were important players and big keys to our team chemistry, but not kids in the rotation. We have to replace their roles as well."
Following the Cornell Classic, the Rams hit the road for three straight games. The stretch starts with a Nov. 22 challenge against Illinois Wesleyan, two years removed from an NCAA championship. Cornell visits rival Coe on Nov. 26, and then opens MWC play Dec. 4 at Knox.
"I like what I see from our team so far," Brase said. "We need to continue to improve and keep supporting each other on and off the court. I like where we're at."