The coach of one of the area's most successful girls' basketball programs, Bob Schaefer usually has a decent idea of how good his Cheltenham team can be any given year.

Last season, observers thought a young Cheltenham team was a season away from competing for a state title. The Panthers reached the PIAA Class AAAA state semifinal - a feat that Schaefer said wasn't surprising to him.

Now, in a season when Schaefer has two returning three-year starters and a slew of talented perimeter players, he is a little hesitant to proclaim anything.

"I know everyone thought this was the year because of our talented guards," said Schaefer, entering his 29th season as coach.

"We're very cautious. I'm hoping we'll be successful."

The reason for being cautious, Schaefer says, is simple: size. No player on Cheltenham's roster is taller than 5-foot-10 and the post players are the only inexperienced portion of the team.

Last season, with Dayna McCrewell and Jenna Peoples in the lineup, the Panthers had two excellent rebounders and scorers in the paint. This year's team will have a drastically different feel.

"We're going to be more of an outside team this year," Schaefer said. "We're going to have to shoot a good percentage."

The guard play should be dependable for Cheltenham. Shayla Felder and Monet Constant have started for three years. Both averaged around 13 points per game last season. Throw in junior point guar Tiffany Johnson and senior guard Liz Taliaferro, both of whom have a great deal of experience, and the Panthers are loaded in the backcourt.

Schaefer is hoping the run through the district and state playoffs with just two key seniors last season will pay dividends for the current upperclassmen.

It was the 11th time in 16 years that Cheltenham reached the state semifinals. Last season ended with a loss to Mount Lebanon, the eventual Class AAAA champion. In that game, the Panthers played without Felder, who was nursing an injured knee.

"The seniors have played a lot of basketball," Schaefer said. "Certainly having gone through those playoffs was invaluable."

Considering there could come a time when Schaefer is playing a lineup of all guards, the Panthers might need more than experience to win.

In preseason practice, Schaefer emphasized the team's strength: quickness. Whereas in past seasons Cheltenham would stick to a half-court game, this season Schaefer is installing a pressure defense that will extend the length of the court.

At forward, Schaefer said he is still figuring it all out. One player he will turn to is Kira Ogden, a 5-9 senior forward who didn't play much last season due to a knee injury. Christina Coleman, a 5-10 sophomore, has impressed Schaefer in the early going.

But there are weaknesses.

"We need the forwards to get more physical than they are at this point," he said.

Schaefer can remain optimistic because of last season. During the District 1 championship run, McCrewell was suspended, but the Panthers responded with a title. When Felder went down in the playoffs, that same group kept it close against the eventual state champion before falling.

This time around, the guards will need more shots to fall. And Schaefer will rely on his most experienced players to deliver again.

Said Schaefer: "They've shown they have the heart and can play."