Opposing defenses have finally found a surefire way to successfully defend Hico sensation Cara Finstad: graduation.

Finstad, a two-tiime all-state selection who was her class valedictorian and was voted the Empire-Tribune's 2009 Female Athlete of the Year, is gone, but the Lady Tigers return enough firepower to be ranked No. 20 in the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches 2A girls preseason poll.

Gone with Finstad is head coach Larry Holder, who led a resurgence in the Lady Tigers' basketball program, reaching the regional tournament for the first time in school history in 2009 and advancing to the area round before bowing out to then-No. 1 Winnsboro this spring.

Holder turns the reigns over to assistant coach Brad Stegall, who promises the Lady Tigers will continue to play a high-pressure, uptempo style.

"We're keeping things the same with a little more emphasis on pushing the ball," Stegall said. "We're going to run an uptempo game with a lot of pressure."

That style of play was too much for opponents to handle in rotating-scrimmage play against host Clyde, Haskell and Coahoma Tuesday. Unofficially, Hico outscored its opponents 119-39 over the span of six 15-minute, running-clock sessions.

"Even in the summer league and early in practice the girls have really responded to (the fast pace of play)," Stegall said. "It's a fun style to play and it should be a fun year."

With the exception of Finstad, virtually everyone is back for the Lady Tigers, who finished 27-6 last season.

Stegall's daughter Cassi, a senior guard, is a returning all-state honoree who will finish her career a four-year letterman.

Joining her in the back court will likely be Kim Ramos, a move-in from nearby rival Dublin, and sophomore point guard Blake Wood, who Stegall says is an exciting young athlete.

The front court remains the same, but far more experienced. Sophomore Stacey Underwood, who stands six foot, three inches, started as a freshman last year, and Claudia Zuniga is also back.

"(Finstad's) going to be hard to replace, but we have some good young kids moving up and (Ramos) will be a very good addition," Stegall said. "We still have Cassi and Claudia and Stacey is a year older and is very solid for us."

One thing Stegall has emphasized is strength of schedule. Saturday the Lady Tigers will face Corsicana and Fairfield in scrimmage play.

"I don't know much about Corsicana except it's a big 4A and they will have athletes all over the floor," Stegall said. "Fairfield is No. 10 in the state in 3A. I don't care to scrimmage people we can just manhandle. I want to scrimmage people who will prepare us and show us exactly where we stand."

The Lady Tigers open the regular season at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Breckenridge. Sub-varsity games tip off at 4 p.m.

Also on the early schedule are Godley, which Stegall says is "loaded," and Goldthwaite, which is ranked No. 4 in 1A.

"I wanted to beef up the schedule to help prepare us for district and the playoffs," Stegall said.

The strength of schedule in District 6-2A play speaks for itself.

No. 16 San Saba and No. 17 Bangs are ranked ahead of the Lady Tigers in the TABC poll, and Early reached the regional tournament last year.

"You throw Comanche in the mix, and then we have to deal with a big rival like Dublin, and it's going to be a war night-in and night-out," said Stegall. "There won't be a night off for us."

With Hico pressing every possession and sprinting up the court on offense, there won't be a night off for any of the Lady Tigers' opponents, either.