Vanguard University senior Nicole Ballestero earned first-team All-American recognition as a junior, when she averaged 21.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, led the team with 42 steals and was second with 58 three-pointers. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / January 15, 2013)

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When it comes to women's basketball on the NAIA Division I level, what happens in Southern California seldom stays there, but rather eventually winds up having a major impact on the national tournament in Frankfort, Ky.

With this in mind, Vanguard University Coach Russ Davis, enters his 18th season more interested in the Lions' place in the Golden State Athletic Conference than their spot atop the NAIA preseason poll.

"The way It is now, we want to play for a GSAC championship, because if you win the GSAC, you can win a national title," said Davis, who by guiding the Lions to the NAIA crown in 2008, began a run of three separate GSAC representatives winning NAIA titles in the previous six seasons."

GSAC member Westmont last season joined Azusa Pacific (2012) as NAIA champions from the SoCal conference in which Vanguard has wound up on top 10 of the last 16 seasons.

The Lions defeated Westmont in last year's GSAC Tournament final, before going on to reach the quarterfinals of the NAIA Tournament in their 12th consecutive trip to the national event.

A run to the NAIA quarterfinals would clearly be a disappointment for this year's squad, which is led by perhaps the best player in the nation.

"I think she's the front-runner, right now, to be the National Player of the Year," Davis said of senior guard Nicole Ballestero, who earned first-team All-American recognition as a junior, when the University of San Diego transfer averaged 21.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, led the team with 42 steals and was second with 58 three-pointers. "But it's a long season."

Ballestero, who played primarily point guard last year, but will be utilized mainly at shooting guard this season, averaged 22.3 points in a four-game preseason exhibition tour that included losses at UCLA, Cal and Stanford, as well as a victory at UC Santa Barbara.

"I made the move because [Ballestero] is one of the best offensive players in the nation, so I want to get her more shots," Davis said.

Ballestero is the lone returning starter from a team that finished 25-4 and lost twice to Westmont, ranked No. 3 this season after its 30-4 campaign in 2012-13.

Senior Taylor Belmont will start at point guard. She had nine assists and two turnovers against UCLA and, Davis believes, is playing with enough confidence to contribute in the scoring department as well.

The second-leading scorer figures to be sophomore Samantha Doucette. The 5-11 guard averaged 6.2 points as a freshman, when she started six times in her 29 appearances. Doucette, whom Davis said has the best mid-range game of any player he has had at Vanguard, averaged 15.4 points in the four aforementioned exhibitions, during which she made 23 of 44 field-goal tries (52.3%) and was six for nine from three-point range (66.7%).

Jordie Smith, a 6-0 forward who sat out last season due to injury, is a likely starter up front, where 6-3 senior Leigha Bednar and 6-2 junior Melissa Norman figure to battle for the starting center spot.

Bednar, who began her collegiate career at Air Force, averaged 3.7 points and 2.1 rebounds in 27 games last season, all off the bench.

Norman is a transfer from Nebraska Kearney, an NCAA Division II school for which she averaged 7.7 points and 7.0 rebounds in 20 games, 14 of which she started. She also led the team with 36 blocked shots.

"It's all new to Norman, so she is on this learning curve right now," Davis said. "As soon as she figures it out, by the time conference rolls around, she's going to be a significant part of what we're trying to get accomplished."

With the possibility of three players 6-0 or taller in the game at once, Davis said his trademark attacking half-court trapping zone defense should once again be a weapon after last year's squad relied primarily on man-to-man defense.

"Our zone works best with size and athleticism and we can bring that, along with versatility, this year," Davis said. "Last year, our man-to-man was our go-to defense. This year, we're going to get back to the days when we were winning championships, when we were playing zone after a made basket."

Ashley Land, a 5-7 guard out of Eugene, Ore. and Ashleigh Anderson, a 5-8 junior guard who transferred from Clackamas Community College in Oregon, also figure to contribute heavily, Davis said.

Land, who was a candidate to start before suffering a stress fracture in her foot, could return later this month, Davis said, while Anderson, yet another product of the Oregon City High program to wear Vanguard blue and gold, has shown she is ready to transition to this level without much problem.

Jamie Goff, a 6-0 freshman forward from Oregon City, is also expected to contribute, as is 6-0 junior forward Nicole Zugasti, who transferred from Citrus Community College.

Davis said sophomore Maya Kennedy may redshirt with a recurring knee issue, while sophomores Lauren Martin and Lindsey Harter, as well as freshman Hanna Tabron add depth in the backcourt.

"Westmont is good again, [No. 10-ranked] The Master's will be in the mix and Concordia, with a new coach and some new players, should also have a say in the way things are decided [in the GSAC]," Davis said.

Vanguard opens its regular season Thursday against Occidental at 7:30 p.m., the first of four home games that include a date with No. 5-ranked Westminster of Utah on Nov. 16 at noon.

The Lions open GSAC play at San Diego Christian on Jan. 14. They visit Westmont on Jan. 21 and play host to the Warriors on Feb. 11. The Master's meets Vanguard at home on Feb. 4 and visits Costa Mesa on Feb. 25.

"If we stay healthy, I think we're one of the few teams that have a legitimate chance of[winning an NAIA title] with our depth," Davis said. "I'm excited to see how this team pans out."