Monday, November 3, 2014

2014-15 MAAC Women's Basketball Preview

Brian Giorgis faces more question marks than ever before at Marist this season, but is still biggest target in MAAC as Red Foxes seek unprecedented tenth straight conference championship. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference will unveil its men's and women's basketball preseason polls Wednesday night, but in recent years, the rankings have always been paced by Marist, and then everyone else.

The Red Foxes' staying power atop the MAAC is as much a credit to the coaching of Brian Giorgis as it is the players he has turned into all-conference honorees during his twelve years in Poughkeepsie, but if the affable dean of mid-major women's basketball is to win his tenth straight conference championship and eleventh overall, his team will have to dodge ten stronger and faster bullets on the road to Albany, where the conference championships will once again be held.

Our predictions on the men's side were released nearly a month ago, and the way we see the women's race playing out is as follows:

1) Iona - Billi Godsey took a roster that her predecessor Tony Bozzella left a contender, and turned it into a regular season championship-winning unit in her first season at the helm, highlighted by the program's first win over Marist in over a decade. This year, three starters are gone, but the two who remain are only the two best players in the conference in two-time reigning MAAC Player of the Year Damika Martinez; who enters her senior season at the shooting guard position, and junior forward Joy Adams, who has become for the Gaels what Siena legend O.D. Anosike was on the men's side, that being a walking double-double. Aaliyah Robinson, last year's Sixth Player of the Year, will be thrust into a starting role in the absence of Aleesha Powell and Haley D'Angelo, while sharpshooter Cassidee Ranger will see an increased workload as she also steps into the limelight. Iona will attempt to replace Sabrina Jeridore with a three-headed monster of 6-4 La Salle transfer Karynda DuPree and freshmen Ashley Murray and Casey Wortley, who measure 6-3 and 6-2, respectively.

2) Quinnipiac - If the MAAC had underestimated the coaching acumen of Tricia Fabbri going into last season, the Bobcats had certainly proven their critics wrong by the end of their inaugural campaign in their new league, in which they not only reached the conference championship game, but had perennial MAAC kingpin Marist on the ropes late in the second half as Quinnipiac sought its second championship in as many years, in as many leagues. Only Brittany McQuain has left Hamden this season, allowing four returning starters to return to arguably the most cohesive unit in the conference. Gillian Abshire and Jasmine Martin anchor the backcourt with their steady hands and deceptive scoring ability, while Nikoline Ostergaard combines a smart and efficient shot inside with the potent marksmanship of senior Sam Guastella, who had the game of her life in the MAAC championship a year ago. Maria Napolitano adds the ability to do many things that do not show up in the box score, and junior guard Adily Martucci leads Fabbri's patented "Gold Rush," the Bobcats' second unit known for coming into the game in a hockey-style line change to keep the rotation fresh in a program where players rarely average more than 30 minutes per contest. If you're looking for a legitimate contender not named Iona or Marist, and one who has a proven track record of giving established teams major fits for 40 minutes, Quinnipiac is the team for you.

3) Marist - Brian Giorgis, as mentioned in our introduction, may have a larger share of doubters this season after three starters graduated. However, Marist would not be Marist if the MAAC legend did not already have a foundation in place to pick up the slack left by Emma O'Connor, Leanne Ockenden and Casey Dulin. Junior forward Madeline Blais will more than likely be the centerpiece to the Red Fox attack this season after a breakout sophomore campaign, and reigning MAAC Tournament Most Valuable Player Sydney Coffey will once again bring her versatile four-position prowess into a lineup that should finally have 6-3 center Tori Jarosz healthy for most of the season, as a foot injury has forced her to the shelf yet again for at least the first several games of the year. The key for Marist this season will be finding the fourth and fifth pieces that Giorgis has made a living out of turning into superstars, and that starts with sophomore forward Katharine Fogarty.

4) Fairfield - Joe Frager has never had to rebuild while in charge of the Stags, rather, he has essentially reloaded every year by cycling through his extremely talented bench to find pieces to rise up and adapt to the challenge of becoming key cogs to keep Fairfield in the top half of the conference on an annual basis. Such is life in southwest Connecticut, where Frager will again attempt to turn water into wine after losing all three of his top scorers, leaving junior guard Kristin Schatzlein as the top returning incumbent. Schatzlein, whose 64 three-pointers and 36 percent shooting from beyond the arc were second-best for the Stags last season, will be joined by senior point guard Felicia DaCruz, who averaged over five assists per game last season with an assist-to-turnover ratio of more than 3:1. Forwards Kristine Miller and Samantha Cooper, the latter of which was limited to three games in her freshman season due to injury, will be the primary options to shoulder the massive load vacated by the graduations of Katie Cizynski and Brittany Obi-Tabot.

5) Canisius - Just like Quinnipiac ahead of them, the Golden Griffins are a legitimate dark horse candidate to finish higher than their prediction, which justifies the underrated coaching of Terry Zeh, who does not get anywhere close to the credit he deserves for keeping Canisius afloat in a league filled with the likes of Marist, Iona and Fairfield. The Griffs return both halves of their backcourt in senior Kayla Hoohuli and junior Tiahana Mills, with junior forward Crystal Porter also back to lead the rebounding charge. Keep an eye on sophomore Lauren D'Hont, who connected on 49 percent of her three-point attempts last season, firmly positioning her as Canisius' top outside threat.

6) Rider - Lynn Milligan must now prepare for life without all-MAAC honoree MyNeshia McKenzie, and must do so fast considering the Broncs' season opener comes against Seton Hall and Milligan's former MAAC coaching colleague Tony Bozzella. Junior guard Emily Fazzini is back after an ankle injury cost her all but four games a year ago, and she should be the prime target to fill McKenzie's production while Lashay Banks and French import Manon Pellet return to the backcourt as well. Up front, expect sophomore Julia Duggan and senior Marritta Gillcrease to see most of the minutes, while Lithuanian Kornelija Valiuskyte and clutch shooter Stephanie Mason are Rider's first options off the bench.

7) Niagara - Living proof that the MAAC is a coaches' league is illustrated in many teams, but chief among them are the Purple Eagles and their architect, Kendra Faustin, who returned from giving birth to a baby boy to once again position Niagara solidly among the contenders in the MAAC. Three-point specialist Meghan McGuinness, who now enters her senior year after knocking down a team-best 84 trifectas at a 43 percent clip last season, is a huge reason why. Three other starters, headlined by forwards Val McQuade and Gabby Baldasare; as well as Canadian senior guard Kelly Van Leeuwen, give the Purple Eagles a jolt of experience to complement the burgeoning talent of Victoria Rampado, last season's MAAC Rookie of the Year. Rampado now enters the starting five eager to build on her nine points and five rebounds per game, and should blossom into an all-conference player if all goes well.

8) Siena - Ali Jaques learned firsthand how difficult it would be to replace a franchise player the likes of Lily Grenci, whom the Saints missed greatly in the midst of a 9-22 campaign last year. Three starters return to Loudonville this season, with homegrown talent and leading scorer Tehresa Coles back for her senior year. Sophomore forward Meghan Donohue should no doubt improve from a rookie season that saw her shoot 51 percent from the field while registering respectable numbers of eight points and five rebounds per game, and Danish wing Ida Krogh will help supplement Donohue's numbers in the paint. Expect senior Kelsey Booth to transition into the starting lineup, but the Saints' bench is still somewhat of a question mark going into the season.

9) Manhattan - Arguably one of the nicest guys anywhere in the business, John Olenowski is seemingly impossible to root against. His upbeat, positive style and encouraging nature endears him to his players, and such a voice of support will be needed more than usual in Riverdale this year as his Jaspers will go through the season looking to replace two of their better players in Monica Roeder and Allison Skrec. Wagner transfer Jacqui Thompson, whose burst of speed and basketball instincts will make her an asset at the point guard position sooner rather than later, will join Blake Underhill in the backcourt, but it is Manhattan's size that will make them formidable. With three starters over six feet tall, including 6-2 Kayla Grimme, who returns after being limited to just eight games a year ago to join Ashley Stec and Shayna Ericksen, the Jaspers will no doubt have the height to get them through adverse conditions early in the MAAC season, but the youth of this team will be a major concern all year.

10) Monmouth - The Hawks survived their first incarnation to the MAAC, but most of the success in West Long Branch was due to all-conference selection Chevannah Paalvast, who graduated this past May. With Paalvast out of the fold, Jenny Palmateer now turns to junior guard Jasmine Walker to be the face of the roster, with 6-4 senior Sara English reprising her role as one of the league's more imposing interior presences. Swedish import Helena Kurt is Monmouth's third returning starter, and a supporting cast headlined by Mia Hopkins will seek to turn the Hawks into a program that gets better as the season progresses.

11) Saint Peter's - The road to restoration for Pat Coyle has already been long and winding just one season in, and things will not get any easier for the Peacocks, especially after the departures of Aziza May and Kaydine Bent, two of Saint Peter's better players one year ago. Senior guard Antonia Smith will likely be the anchor of the team this season, as will junior forward Hala Mostafa, while Bridget Whitfield and Neechelle Ingram return much-needed experience to the front line.

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