Last season was quite an adjustment for George Mason women's basketball coach Debbie Taneyhill.

Her son, Jason Thomas, was born Sept. 13. Four weeks later, she began her first full season as a head coach. Between acclimating to motherhood and teaching her team new offensive and defensive systems, Taneyhill endured a hectic few months.

This year has been much different.

"We feel like we're at such a different point this year than we were last year," Taneyhill said. "This year, having six weeks of preseason, and our kids know what our expectations are. They know how we run things; it's just been a lot smoother. We feel like we're so much farther ahead from where we were at this time last year."

George Mason, which returns four starters, including two first-team all-Colonial Athletic Association picks, is expected to be one of the area's better women's basketball teams this season. The Patriots were picked second behind national power Old Dominion in the CAA coaches' preseason poll.

If the first few months of last season seemed overwhelming, Taneyhill faced even greater challenges as the season wore on. Two players had to leave the team after the first semester because of academic problems. Then, Taneyhill suspended three freshmen for violating team rules. The Patriots played the final month of the season with seven players, but managed to finish third in the CAA.

Depth should not be a problem this season. Senior forward Trish Halpin, who holds the school's single-season record with 75 blocked shots, was the team's second-leading scorer (12.8 points per game) last season. She added 6.6 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 3.1 assists per game. Junior guard Jen Surlas tied for the conference scoring lead (15.6 points per game) and three-point shots made (56). Senior point guard Courtney Kaup was second in the conference in assists at 5.4 per game.

Elsewhere around the area, as practice begins:

American

The Eagles had an unexpectedly tough season last year, finishing 11-16. And with three key players gone from that team--guards Kari Gaskins and Nichole Grant, and forward Kim Gombola--American must regroup if it is to prove the CAA coaches wrong. The Eagles were picked to finish last in the preseason poll.

American does have one of the CAA's top players, junior guard Kate Miller. An all-CAA first-team pick last season, she tied for the conference lead at 15.6 points per game. This summer, she was one of 44 players invited to the USA Basketball World University Games tryouts.

Georgetown

Last season, the Hoyas doubled their wins from the previous year and made their second postseason appearance in school history. However, Georgetown must continue to improve before it can be a factor in the often competitive Big East Conference.

Two local players, junior Katie Smrcka-Duffy (Madison High School) and sophomore point guard Lesley Walker (Wheaton), form a strong back court. Walker was a member of a Big East all-star team that played in Europe this summer. The challenge will be replacing departed forward Sylita Thomas. Georgetown returns just two experienced post players.

George Washington

For the first time in eight seasons, the Colonials did not reach the 20-win mark last season. Their streak of five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances also ended. But GW's slide has not been severe.

The Colonials return a talented trio of guards--senior Elisa Aguilar, a first-team Atlantic 10 Conference pick, senior Marlo Egleston and junior Kristeena Alexander. But the departure of last season's conference player of the year, forward Noelia Gomez, has left George Washington without a dominant post player. So, the Colonials are expected to play a more up-tempo style.

Howard

The Lady Bison continue to be one of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's premier programs, and this season they have all five starters back.

Their biggest strength this season is height. Sophomore 6-foot-4 center Yetta Enobakhare, the team's top rebounder last season at 6.8 rebounds per game, leads a formidable front court. Sophomore forward Courtney Kirk and junior forward Mona Gail Baker stand 6-1 and 6-2, respectively. The Lady Bison are also tall at the guard position. Senior Regan Carter, the team's leading scorer last season at 12.4 points per game, is 5-10.

Maryland

As Chris Weller begins her 25th season as the Terrapins' coach, she looks to improve on the program's worst season. Maryland finished 6-21 overall and won three Atlantic Coast Conference games last season.

Although the Terrapins are still a young team--eight of 12 players are underclassmen--they return four of five starters. Last season, sophomore forward Deedee Warley was the fourth freshman in Maryland history to lead the team in scoring; she averaged 13.4 points per game. Senior guard Tiffany Brown holds the school record for career three-point baskets with 84.

Navy

Despite losing three-time all-Patriot League center Laurie Coffey, the Midshipmen are likely to contend for the league title. The league's coaches picked Navy to finish second, behind five-time league champion Holy Cross.

Senior forward Erica Hayes, who was second in the league in scoring last season with 16.8 points per game, earned preseason league player of the year honors. She led the Midshipmen in scoring, field goal percentage (.542), free throw percentage (.804) and was second in rebounding (7.6 per game).

Virginia

The Cavaliers (20-9 last season) still are feeling the sting of losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row. Once an ACC power, they are going to have a tough time regaining their elite status this season.

Last season's leading scorer and two-time all-ACC player, DeMya Walker, has departed, and so have four of the team's leading rebounders. Freshman forward Schuye LaRue (Carroll) and two Belarusans--junior forward Svetlana Volnaya and junior center Elena Kravchenko--are expected to contribute in the front court. Junior guard Erin Stoval and senior guard Renee Robinson must carry much of the load early in the season.

Virginia Tech

It will be tough for the Hokies to top last season--the program's best. They lost two key starters from a team that finished 28-3 and reached the NCAA tournament round of 16 before falling to Tennessee.

But with the return of the team's leading scorer, junior forward Tere Williams and all-Atlantic 10 Conference guard Amy Wetzel, optimism continues to run high in Blacksburg, Va. The school recently announced advance-purchase reserve seating for home games.

CAPTION: Last night was the first time the Georgetown Hoyas held Midnight Madness, and one look at who showed up at McDonough Gym would explain why.