Western Carolina’s women’s basketball team will open its season at home at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Virginia Wise.

WCU will travel to North Carolina for a 6 p.m. contest two days later.

It’s been a strange off-season for the Lady Cats.

Coach Stephanie McCormick was fired March 27 following a 4-26 season that left her four-year record 23-94.

Heather Kearney, associate head coach at High Point,was hired May 22 after reports of other candidates turning the job down. On June 20, the WCU Board of Trustees refused to approve Kearney’s contract for reasons that have never been publicly explained.

Kiley Hill was named coach July 8. He had been associate head coach at Southern Mississippi and was previously head coach at Valdosta State.

Given the turmoil and the fact that last year’s squad had just four wins, it’s not surprising that WCU was picked to finish last in the Southern Conference by league coaches and media.

“I will borrow a line from ‘Talladega Nights’ when Ricky Bobby’s dad told him ‘If you ain’t first you’re last,’” Hill said of the pre-season predictions. “We see this as a challenge and the chance to show fans what we can do and what we are made of.”

Furman was named the pre-season favorite by the coaches with Mercer chosen by the media.

The coaches went with Wofford second, followed by Mercer, East Tennessee, UNC-Greensboro, UT-Chattanooga, Samford and WCU.

The media had Furman second, followed by UT-C, ETSU, Wofford, UNC-G, Samford and WCU.

Jewel Smalls is back after being named the league’s Freshman of the Year by the media last year when she was third-team all-conference. Smalls averaged 11 points, and her 330 points were the second most ever by a WCU freshman.

“Jewel has been doing some great things for us as team practice began,” Hill said. “She is an integral piece of the puzzle for us.”

Junior Lauren LaPlant returns after missing last season with a knee injury. She averaged 8.0 points and hit 32 three-pointers two years ago.

“Lauren LaPlant has been fabulous after coming off an injury last year,” Hill said. “She has a high basketball IQ and gets it.”

Also back from an injury is Tembre Moates, who played in just eight games last season.

Returning seniors are Farasia Hodge and Judith Martin-Ruiz.

Hill said pre-season practice was crucial “to work on the fundamentals and building the character of this team on the court.”

“We are going to be a team that is fundamentally sound and shoots the outside shot, but even before that I have to make sure I know what pieces I have to build around,” he said.

The schedule is as follows:

Nov. 5 – Virginia Wise; 7 – at North Carolina; 9 – at Elon; 12 – at USC-Upstate; 14 – Campbell; 18 – UNC-Asheville; 20 – at Davidson; 24 – Coastal Carolina; 27 – at Gardner-Webb.

Dec. 4 – Charleston Southern; 6 – Cleveland State; 17 – Tennessee Tech; 21 – Winthrop; 30 – at College of Charleston.

Jan. 6 – Southern Wesleyan; 9 – UT-Chattanooga; 11 – East Tennessee; 18 – at UNC-Greensboro; 23 – at Wofford; 25 – at Furman; 30 – Samford.

Feb. 1 – Mercer; 6 – at ETSU; 8 – at UT-C; 15 – UNC-G; 20 – Furman; 22 – Wofford; 27 – at Mercer; 29 – at Samford.