At the beginning of last season, the Haddon Township girls' basketball team was considered to be a year away from challenging for a sectional title.

The Hawks had just one senior, but despite fielding such a young team, the timetable for progress was seriously speeded up.

In addition to winning the Colonial Conference Patriot Division, the Hawks went 25-5 and captured the South Jersey Group 2 title.

Now with a veteran team, the expectations have heightened. The Hawks are favored again in the Patriot, and also won't surrender their Group 2 title very easily.

The one starter that the Hawks have to replace is graduated center Maddie McComb. Other than that, this should be a typical Haddon Township team, which means one that unveils a balanced offense and a defense that is on the unforgiving side.

And even though four starters return, the Hawks enter this season cautiously optimistic, but far from overconfident.

"Last year gave us good experience and we were a young team and it really helped our confidence," said Jess Brown, a 5-foot-9 junior who is one of the four returning starters. "We have to go out there again this year and do it again, and it will be a good challenge."

Besides Brown, the other three returning starters are 5-8 junior Jess Donaldson, 5-11 junior Katie Getzinger and 5-6 sophomore point guard Sara DeCinque.

What makes the Hawks so difficult to defend is that any of the players on the court is capable of scoring and each brings a certain element of versatility. For example, Getzinger can score from down low, but teams can't fall asleep when she strays outside because the junior is also dangerous from the perimeter.

"One of the keys to the team has been our balance," coach Tom Mulligan said. "Everybody can play inside, and outside, we can spread the floor and run a Princeton offense."

Teams must be patient when defending the Hawks, because of the way they value each possession.

In addition to the returning starters, two seniors who saw considerable time last season are guard Lauren McCutcheon and forward Carly Francis. Mulligan said that Francis isn't expected to return until next month after recovering from an injury during soccer season.

Brown, who is also excels in soccer and track, realizes that there will be no sneaking up on opponents this season for the Hawks.

"We are a lot of other teams' targets and that puts pressure on us, but we just need the same mind-set, to play hard," she said.

What is most impressive is how the Hawks tackle the not-so-fun job of defending.

"They love to play defense," Mulligan said.

Then again, if the players don't buy into the defensive concept, they likely won't see time. Under Mulligan, who won his 300th game last season, Haddon Township's strength has been its ability to play a team game.

While there have been high scorers in the past, this season's team will likely resemble last season's unit, where the offense will come from a lot of areas.

And despite last season's record and the return of such an experienced cast, the margin for error isn't very high.

"We weren't walking in and blowing everybody out last year," Mulligan said. "The games were life and death, and we are still a possession team, where every possession is critical."

And just like last season, the Hawks are expected to make the most of each possession. While much of the team returns, so does the workmanlike attitude, which is likely to produce more favorable results.

Contact staff writer Marc Narducci at 856-779-3225