Last year wasn’t a banner year for the county’s three Region 5-AAAA competitors in girls’ basketball. While Aiken and North Augusta made the state playoffs, neither hosted a playoff game and both were ousted in the first round.

South Aiken started off hot under first-year coach Erin Brinkley, but faltered when region play rolled around. Still the T-Breds took some momentum into the offseason with a victory over their rival Hornets to finish the season.

All three squads have reason to believe that this season will be a different story, though. In a tough region that got tougher with the addition of Dutch Fork, gains will only be made with great improvement.

Aiken Hornets

Head coach: Aubrey Pompey

Last season: Aiken went 7-18, winning a play-in game against White Knoll for the No. 4 playoff seed in Region 5-AAAA before losing to Colleton County in the first round of the state playoffs.

Season opener: vs. Laney (Ga.) at Glenn Hills on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m.

In addition to the usual group of seniors, last year’s Aiken squad lost three key pieces from its successful 2010-11 team when guard Hannah Williams got hurt and post Monique Tyler as well as guard Rebekah Muir left the team.

Those players are back as seniors, and paired with leading scorer Erin Gilmore, they form a core that gives the Hornets some leadership to go with the young players that got battle-tested a year ago, like sophomore Sophie Nance.

“It creates depth for us,” Pompey said. “It gives us a deeper team; I think we can play a lot of people.”

Williams will help to free up Gilmore, also a senior, to score even more by running the point for the Hornets this year, and Tyler brings size to both ends of the floor. Tyler is also a force on the glass collecting rebounds.

“It helps us to stabilize the inside,” Pompey said. “Monique provides a threat for us inside.”

Junior Alexis Odom will work as a post complement to Tyler.

“She plays inside, so that gives us a little more strength,” Pompey said.

While having that blend of new and old players that are all experienced is a blessing, it has left Pompey still unsure of what type of team he’ll have. He said that his team’s pace and style are yet to be determined, but he knows that establishing a preferred rhythm will be important.

“I think our tempo is going to be important for us to try to establish,” he said.

That tempo becomes particularly important when considering the high-octane competition that the Hornets will face. In addition to early-season tournaments and non-region tilts with Spring Valley, the Hornets will face Lexington and defending state champion Dutch Fork in region play.

Pompey said that while he’s optimistic about his team’s ability, he knows that the Silver Foxes return a lot of talent and expects them to be heavy favorites in Region 5-AAAA.

“They’re definitely strong,” he said. “They return their top players. ... Coming in, they’re definitely the favorites in our region, if not the state playoffs and state championship.”

He said his first opportunity to really get a feel for his team’s preparation level will come in a preseason tournament at Glenn Hills on Nov. 19 and 20. Playing against Laney and the host Spartans will provide a barometer for the Hornets.

“That’s definitely going to provide a great test for us,” Pompey said.

South Aiken Thoroughbreds

Head coach: Erin Brinkley

Last season: The T-Breds went 10-8 but missed the state playoffs on a tiebreaker.

Season opener: Nov. 27 at Greenbrier (Ga.) at 6 p.m.

South Aiken went 8-0 to start the season last year, but the T-Breds were feasting on smaller schools. Even though the wins showed progress in the program – nothing wrong with beating the teams you should beat – Brinkley said her team was out-matched when region play rolled around, finished 2-8 in that portion of the season.

After a full year in the job, the second-year T-Bred coach said that her squad will be better prepared to give their quality region foes a run this year.

“We will be better able to compete than we were last year,” Brinkley said.

The first reason for Brinkley’s optimism is just the basic development of her program. A year ago, she said she was teaching players the fundamentals of the game. Now, with players like Makenzie Smith, Kyasia Youmans, Courtney Farrell and Bree Parks back in the fold for another year, Brinkley has been able to take the next teaching step.

“It’s a great outlook,” she said. “We’re putting in a lot of stuff this year ... basically, a lot of fundamentally sound plays.”

The bulk of the T-Bred offense will be built around the guard-heavy rotation that Brinkley has at her disposal. Including leading scorers Smith and Youmans, Brinkley said that nine of her 12 players would be considered guards, even a few that are taller than 5-9 but are “guards at heart.”

Because of that, South Aiken will look to push the ball up the floor instead of waiting on an individual point guard to get the offense started.

“This year, the goal is to have at least two, maybe three, people out there that can set up the offense,” Brinkley said.

Brinkley has also analyzed the stats from a year ago to find areas where the T-Breds could improve. In that research, she found that shooting percentage, fast break points and offensive rebounds were the keys to finding some wins that weren’t there in the 2011-12 campaign.

“We gave up way too many fast breaks,” she said. “Most teams got 45 or 50 percent of their points on fast breaks.”

Brinkley said she thinks the efforts to control the pace of the game and not wait on a point guard to set up the offense will cut down on some of the fast breaks going the other direction.

All those adjustments together should keep the T-Breds in games down to the end, which can lead to opportunities to get victories or at least feel more confident after tight losses.

“The last two minutes are drastically different at eight or 10 than at 20,” Brinkley said of cutting the score deficit in half against tougher opponents.

Brinkley also made adjustments to the T-Breds’ schedule, replacing some of the Class A and AA schools with opponents from larger classes like Greenbrier. While the undefeated start to last season was nice, the wins against smaller schools did not carry as much weight in the tiebreaker process as even Aiken and White Knolls’ losses to bigger schools.

Brinkley said it was difficult for her team to stomach missing out on the playoffs despite a better overall record.

“I don’t want it to come down to that this year,” she said.

North Augusta Yellow Jackets

Head coach: Crystal Cummings

Last season: The Jackets went 18-6 but lost on the road to Summerville in the first round of the state playoffs.

North Augusta returns a great deal of talent from the squad that went to the second round of the Class AAAA postseason a year ago.

Junior post player Mallory Stone will look to anchor the Yellow Jackets’ offense up front after averaging more than 12 points per game a year ago. At 5-foot-9, she also hauled in more than six rebounds per contest.

Senior forward Jasmine Coach and senior guard Arielle Houston will also play big roles in the Jackets’ efforts to rise above their third-place finish during the 2011-12 campaign.

The team will be under new leadership for this season. After head coach Jared Adamson left for another job in Michigan, Cummings takes over the reins in North Augusta.

Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.