One of the top-ranked teams in NCAA Division III entering the season, the York College women's basketball program will likely have a target on its back.

Rightly so.

The Spartans return four of five starters from a team that made it to the NCAA D-III Sweet 16 a year ago. And the group of returning starters -- point guard Aja Wallpher, guard Kelsey Murphy and forwards Kristen Haley and Brittany Hicks -- has some unfinished business.

Sure, the Spartans won 24 games last year, reached the Capital Athletic Conference title game and took the program back to the round of 16 for the first time since the 2008-2009 season. But York came up short each time it faced CAC foe Mary Washington. The Eagles defeated York twice in the regular season and beat the Spartans in the CAC title game. Mary Washington will enter this season ranked No. 13 in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 preseason poll and No. 16 by d3hoops.com. York, meanwhile, is ranked No. 19 in the ESPN/USA Today poll and No. 18 by d3hoops.com.

"One of the non-statistical goals this season is to beat Mary Washington, whether it's twice or three times," York College coach Betsy Witman said last week. "It would be great to be on top of the CAC at the end of the season and host the tournament title game."

Losing their spark: The Spartans' 2012-2013 season will get started Thursday when they host Johns Hopkins in their season opener at 7 p.m.

Aside from proving it can beat Mary Washington, the group of four returning starters will look to show it can succeed without April Sparkman, who is gone to graduation.

One of four All-CAC selections for York a year ago, Sparkman led the team in scoring at 16.2 points a game, which ranked second in the conference. She was also seventh in the CAC in rebounds and 3-pointers made.

But Haley, Hicks, Murphy and Wallpher are more than capable of filling the gap left by Sparkman. All but Murphy were All-CAC selections last season. Hicks, a York Catholic grad, is York's top returning scorer and rebounder after averaging 13.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game last year. And Witman is expecting even more from Wallpher, who last year led the nation in assists (7.3 a game) while averaging 6.3 points and 3.8 rebounds a game.

"Towards the end of the season she started to take that shot off the dribble and was nailing them," Witman said of Wallpher. "She's just so unselfish. But she is someone who has the ability to average a triple-double."

Witman is expecting junior guard Jess Selby to fill Sparkman's shoes.

"I think it's going to be a collective effort (to replace Sparkman). Everyone has to step up. But Jess Selby is someone who can put up those numbers night in and night out," Witman said.

Outlook: York will once again contend for the CAC title with Mary Washington. If everything falls into place, though, this team has a good shot at an undefeated regular season and to do even more damage in the conference and NCAA tournaments.

The scary part of all of this, however, is that York's starting lineup will consist of juniors. So, this season might just be the start of something great.

-- Reach John Walk at jwalk@yorkdispatch.com.