By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE – Four games into the season, Bart Walker's crew has already tripled last year's Panhandle Conference win total.
But this should come as little surprise. This is a new crew. New leadership. New personnel.
New expectations from a program that hired back Walker and returned only two players from last year's team that went 1-11 in league play.
Validating that shift in culture is this year's conference-leading 3-1 mark.
With wins over Pensacola State, Chipola and Tallahassee, the third-ranked Raiders (18-1) are tied with fourth-ranked Gulf Coast State for the No. 1 spot in the league. The last time the rivals played resulted in a 50-48 comeback win for the Commodores, who are coming off a 64-60 defeat at Chipola.
Come tonight one will sit atop the Panhandle as the Raiders travel to Gulf Coast State for a 5:30 p.m. tipoff.
The Raiders have responded well to that initial loss to Gulf Coast State (15-2), rebounding at Chipola for a 53-51 win and then at home against Tallahassee for a 64-56 victory.
The most encouraging sign from the Raiders has been their defensive sensibilities.
They limited Pensacola State to 74 points in an overtime win.
They held two-time reigning national champion Gulf Coast State to a season-low 50 points on 25-percent shooting.
They held Chipola to a season-worst 51 points on 31-percent shooting.
Then on Thursday against Tallahassee, the Raiders held the Eagles to 32-percent shooting from the floor and 2-for-14 clip from beyond the arc. They also forced 20 turnovers, limited the Eagles to a paltry three assists and posted a 43-24 rebounding edge.
After allowing less than 40 points a night through 15 nonconference games, the Raiders (18-1) are allowing just 57 points a night in a league that opened January with four top 10 teams and the other ranked 16th.
Delving further, the Raiders are holding foes to 34-percent shooting from the floor and 23-percent from downtown, dishing out only six assists per game and getting outrebounded by a margin of 14.3 a night.
And, as evidenced by the latest win which featured four Raiders scoring in double figures and the team shooting 47 percent from the floor, NWF State's shooting touch is coming around.
Awa Trasi, a 6-foot-2 freshman forward, leads the Raiders with 13 points per game on 60-percent shooting in conference play. Sophomore point guard Ann Jernigan follows with 11 points a night to accent 6.8 rebounds and four assists per game.
Freshman forward Trinity Baptiste follows with 10.8 points and a team-best 8.3 rebounds per game off the bench, Georgia Gayle is averaging 8.3 points and Ashley Lee is averaging 7.5 points. Jade Lewis, meanwhile, averages 6.5 points and 6.5 rebounds a night.