Less than two weeks after the season ended with a six-point loss to Malvern in the state championship game, Central Arkansas Christian girls coach Steve Quattlebaum was already looking ahead to next basketball season.

Despite losing seven seniors off this year’s team, which finished 26-7 (including five losses to Malvern), Quattlebaum said the next Lady Mustang squad would be capable of returning to the state championship game. Back will be post player Sydnie Jones and point guard Sarah Butler for their senior seasons, and Brittney Higgins, the speedy sophomore who was a defensive star in the state tournament.

"That’s really three starters back, and we’ll bring up eighth grader Christyn Williams, who’s 5-7, 5-8, jumps really well, an all-around good player, left-handed, who’s got a chance to be one of the best players to play at CAC," Quattlebaum said.

Rising juniors Josie Bates and Dana Potts will also contend for playing time.

Also apt to move up to varsity for their freshman seasons are Lauren Peoples, Jenna Davis, Kelson Miller and Alexa Mashburn.

"Brittney Higgins is capable of scoring more points than she scored this year," Quattlebaum said. "She was very unselfish and gave up opportunities to shoot to get the ball to Sydnie and Falan (Miller, who will go on to play for Harding University next year).

"(Williams) is very athletic. She’s jumping and touching the bottom of the rim. She wants to dunk it by her junior year, and I’m not going to put it past her. She works all the time; she’s very unselfish and is going to be a good player for us.

"It’ll be an interesting year. We’ll be young, but you’ve got a player the caliber of Jones and Butler, and that’s a good start."

With realignment, CAC will move to the 2-4A from the 7-4A. There the Lady Mustangs will face conference foes Heber Springs (state qualifier), Lonoke (state quarterfinalist), E-Stem (Class 3A state champion) and Riverview (Class 3A state semifinalist), among others, and be paired with such state powers as Valley View, which they vanquished in the state semifinals, and Brookland, which they beat in the quarterfinals.

"It’ll be a challenge," Quattlebaum said. "That conference will probably be a little tougher, and the region will also probably be a little tougher, so coming out of those will be tough."

This season was one of the best in recent years at Mustang Mountain and could’ve been even better. The Lady Mustangs lost five times to Malvern (twice in the regular season as well as the finals of the district, regional and state tournaments). The Lady Leopards finished 30-2 as they successfully defended their 2013 state championship.

"We’ve been right there every time," said Quattlebaum, in his 19th season, including three consecutive state titles in the early 2000s. "We’ve had some tough luck a couple of years with injuries. It takes a little luck sometimes to get there, and we haven’t had much lately.

"It’s good when you’re playing your best basketball at the end of the year, and we were. Take away our five losses to Malvern and we had a two-loss season. I think the last couple of years, half of our losses have been to them. Take Malvern out of the picture and we’ve had two pretty good years. We just ended up in the same conference and classification with a dominant team, and that doesn’t happen every year."

The Lady Mustangs will graduate Miller, Anna Kay Marlar, Kristiana Watson, Rachel Mina, Jessica McCauley and Chloe Elkins.

"They’ve been real successful," Quattlebaum said. "In three years they’ve lost maybe 20 games and won nearly 100. Take Malvern out, and they’ve been about as successful in three years as a lot of groups we’ve had. It’s a good senior class. They are involved in a lot of different sports."

It had been seven years since CAC was last in the state championship game.

"We’ve had some teams as good or better than that team, but there’s a lot of luck involved and a lot of attitude and confidence level that the kids take into the state tournament," the coach said. "I thought we had all of that."