HUNTSVILLE – When Sam Houston State reported for practice on Monday, the hard work had already been well underway in anticipation of the 2017-18 season.

The Bearkats, who spent five days a week conditioning at 6 a.m. on the track at Elliott T. Bowers Stadium, made their way into Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum where the squad turned its attention to shooting, ball handling, defense and basic fundamentals.

“It’s an exciting day for all of us,” head coach Brenda Nichols said. “We went through a lot of drills and fundamentals. I think with everything we did in the offseason to prepare, we handled the conditioning really well. We did so much fundamentals and did full court. I thought the girls handled it well. We didn’t want to be a team coming in out of shape.”

The opening practice also symbolized the turning of the page from a difficult 2016-17 season. The youthful Kats finished tied for the 12th in the Southland Conference, notching just three league wins while missing the conference tournament a season after making the championship game.

This go-around, Sam Houston returns leading scorer Jenniffer Oramas (9.1 points per game), leading rebounder Lydia Baxter (6.6), leading three-point shooter Rachel Harrell (38) and leading blocker Kiera McKinney (38).

“I think any time you can have players return, and they got a lot of time in last year, that benefits you on the court,” Nichols said. “They played a lot of minutes. We have some new kids in as well. Everyone is fighting for a position. I think that’s exciting right now.”

Sam Houston opens the season one month from Thursday, hosting the first of 16 games when the team squares off against LSU-Alexandria. The Bearkats will play six of their first seven at home highlighted by non-conference tests against Rice and Texas State.

The team is building towards ultimately not just getting back in contention in league play, but making a run at the team’s first regular season title since 2013. If being in shape is any indication, the Bearkats are off to a strong start.

“Like I told them at the end of practice, everything we’re doing right now is geared towards winning a championship,” Nichols said. “Nothing comes easy.”