SOUTH WHITLEY – For a long time, the Whitko girls basketball program had rich success.

The Lady Wildcats went to four straight sectional finals from 2014-17 under coach Brandon Bradley.

Last season saw an unexpected turn for Whitko, which went 3-20 under then-first-year head coach Rick Bragg.

It was a turn that Bragg expected.

“One of the philosophies that I told the administration, the parents, and the kids is that we were gonna look at this as a two-year rebuild,” he said. “Year No. 1 was to survive, and we did.”

Whitko’s three wins last season came over Churubusco, Southwood, and Maconaquah. The Lady Wildcats lost to Prairie Heights in overtime in their sectional opener.

Whitko will look to garner several more victories this year, though the team’s expectations are tempered.

They’ll focus on the basics, including rebounding, passing and battling full-court defenses. Whitko struggled last season against the press, resulting in a high amount of turnovers.

“Most of the time (last year) we were throwing it away in transition or a press,” Bragg said. “Those are two things (we don’t do) that will allow us to be much more competitive than we were a year ago.”

The Lady Wildcats didn’t lose any major players, and return multiple playmakers from last season.

The varsity roster is just nine deep, with freshman Guinny Garr sidelined because of a knee injury.

Still, even with eight players, Bragg said the team is better off than they were with 17 last year. That’s because many of those players hadn’t played much basketball, whereas each player on the squad this season is well-versed in the sport.

“Just in the first couple weeks, the practices are actually competitive,” Bragg said. “They can push one another because from player No. 1 to player No. 8, there isn’t much discrepancy.”

Senior Emalee Duggins will return as the point guard, while freshman Elizabeth Miller will join her in the backcourt.

“(Duggins) is a legitimate point guard, ball-handler and just a natural leader,” Bragg said.

Bragg also said he expects Miller to become the point guard after Duggins graduates.

“(Miller) doesn’t quite have the basketball mentality and skill of Duggins, but she is just as athletic and just as quick,” Bragg said.

Sarah Hewitt will play small forward for the Lady Wildcats, and Bragg commended her three-point shooting.

Meanwhile, the Lady Wildcats will return Ellie Snep and Kayla Schipper in the post. Snep led Whitko in scoring, and led all Class 1A teams in the state in rebounding last season.

Schipper was also a prominent scorer and rebounder for Whitko last year. Sophomore Gus Garr is expected to contribute as the first reserve off the bench.

The small roster aims to continue strong halfcourt defense that it showed last season, while aiming to lower turnovers and raise scoring.

“Being able to compete and acquiring more wins than last year are two realistic goals,” Bragg said.

The Lady Wildcats have just eight home games on their schedule, but Bragg considers that good experience.

“The more we can play in adverse conditions or at least away from home, it will better prepare us for when we go up there the last week of January,” Bragg said.

The Lady Wildcats play their first game at home against Fort Wayne North Side Friday at 7 p.m.