Tuesday, October 20, 2015

2015-16 MAAC women's basketball preview

This season sees Brian Giorgis and Marist with perhaps their biggest set of question marks, yet Red Foxes are still a contender in a wide-open MAAC race. (Photo courtesy of the Poughkeepsie Journal)

Last season saw a changing of the guard in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, in addition to one of the more dominating seasons in the women's basketball landscape. Following Quinnipiac's undefeated march through the league en route to running the table for the second time in three years, though, is perhaps the most unpredictable season in recent memory.

Yes, Tricia Fabbri and the Bobcats were able to replicate the same feat they achieved in the Northeast Conference two years prior, and upgraded the significance by winning 30 games and dethroning nine-time reigning champion Marist in the process. Replacing the "Gold Rush" and "Old Rush" is a much younger unit who needs their role players to step up, headlined by senior guard Maria Napolitano, the conference's Sixth Player of the Year last season. Sophomore Sarah Shewan and freshman Paula Strautmane should get the first crack at stepping in for the likes of Val Driscoll and Samantha Guastella, and if Brittany Martin is as good as the hype surrounding her arrival, it will seem as though her older sister, Jasmine, never left.

The team Quinnipiac knocked off to reach the NCAA Tournament has just as many concerns on their roster, maybe even more as Marist adjusts to life without Madeline Blais. Head coach Brian Giorgis got perhaps his biggest sign of good fortune in the offseason when center Tori Jarosz was approved for a sixth year, and her return does more than just shore up the interior for the Red Foxes. With Jarosz back, and Sydney Coffey blossoming into the latest four-year success story in Poughkeepsie, Marist has a pair of experienced leaders to shepherd a promising group of underclassmen through a season where the path to an eleventh conference championship is its most uncertain since Giorgis arrived in 2002.

One team that hopes to take advantage of the question marks surrounding last year's championship game participants is Fairfield. With the cadre of coaches in the MAAC, Joe Frager often gets overlooked for his ability to keep the Stags' status as a perennial contender intact, and his coaching acumen is underrated far too many times. Led by the interior duo of Casey Smith and Samantha Cooper, plus the lethal outside shooting of senior leader Kristin Schatzlein and an improving Kelsey Carey, Fairfield is more than just the token dark horse as Alumni Hall gears up to be the home of a potential conference championship banner.

Siena enters the coming season with the same aspirations, with a deep run into the postseason having proven beneficial to Ali Jaques and the Saints last year. Fighting an undermanned roster, Siena was able to ride the contributions of Rookie of the Year Margot Hetzke and fellow classmate Kollyns Scarbrough into a trip to the WBI Final Four, and with several other pieces back after sitting out last season due to transfer or injury, the chances of the host team cutting down the nets in Albany are as high as they have been in quite some time.

Billi Godsey finally gets to put her true stamp on her Iona team this season, as most of the talent on her roster was brought in on her watch. Yes, double-double machine Joy Adams and rising star Aaliyah Robinson were Tony Bozzella recruits, but point guard Marina Lizarazu and 6-4 center Karynda DuPree have their best chance to match the legacy set by their predecessors, Haley D'Angelo and Sabrina Jeridore. The road back to respectability for the Gaels will be winding at times without Damika Martinez, but this team should remain firmly entrenched in or near the upper echelon of the league.

Those looking for an up-and-comer should look no further than Saint Peter's. Regarded as the doormat of the MAAC before Pat Coyle assumed the reins in Jersey City, the Peacocks have learned to play cohesive team basketball, and after picking up a win against Marist down the stretch before nearly beating them again in the conference tournament, Saint Peter's looks poised to finally make the jump. Sophomore Sajanna Bethea, who was a pleasant surprise in her freshman season, should get much more exposure this year in what could very well be a breakout performance.

The complete opposite of Saint Peter's is a Canisius team that returns arguably the most experience in the conference for head coach Terry Zeh. Led by spark plug Tiahana Mills at the point guard spot and the rebounding ability of Crystal Porter up front, the Golden Griffins have the horses to replace sharpshooter Kayla Hoohuli, including a prolific marksman in Emily Weber, one of four returning starters in Buffalo for a group who is a legitimate top five team. Their crosstown rivals take somewhat of a hit in personnel, as Niagara has lost Meghan McGuinness and Kelly Van Leeuwen to graduation. However, new head coach Jada Pierce retains the services of Victoria Rampado and a rising star in Taylor McKay as the Purple Eagles attempt to further their leap forward.

Monmouth has positioned themselves to move up this season as well, with guards Sarah Olson and Helena Kurt both coming back to West Long Branch this season. The Hawks are counting on the interior presence of 6-4 junior forward Christina Mitchell to loom larger, though, but Jenny Palmateer brings back an experienced group that should expect a middle-of-the-pack showing. Manhattan has an emerging core of young talent to supplement a potential all-MAAC honoree in senior forward Shayna Ericksen. Sophomores Taylor Williams and Nyasha Irizarry are two of the best young shooters in the MAAC, and the Jaspers add the services of James Madison expatriates Amani Tatum and Crystal Ross as well. Ross is a 6-4 senior that gives John Olenowski a capable weapon down low that he can switch in and out with the underrated and efficient Kayla Grimme, who should have yet another solid season in Riverdale. Finally, Rider is led by a pair of juniors in Robin Perkins and double-double threat Julia Duggan, but the Broncs still need to replace a great deal of their rebounding, and could use more production from point guard Manon Pellet.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Fairfield - This is the year where it all comes together for Joe Frager and the Stags, who have their best chance to win.

2) Siena - The Saints get their depth back, and will be a challenger that goes the distance. Margot Hetzke could see Player of the Year honors headed her way.

3) Marist - Without Tori Jarosz, the Red Foxes are perhaps in the No. 5 or 6 spot. Having her back is more of a godsend than anyone realizes, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Brian Giorgis use the question marks surrounding his roster as motivation to rip off yet another magical run.

4) Quinnipiac - Much like Steve Masiello on the men's side at Manhattan, Tricia Fabbri can coach circles around most of her competition. The Bobcats may be unproven, but they're a team no one wants any part of in February and March because they'll be right back in the thick of the championship picture.

5) Iona - As Joy Adams goes, so too do the Gaels. It will be interesting to see how Billi Godsey fares both without Damika Martinez and with most of her personnel.

6) Canisius - Quite possibly the most experienced team in the league, which will serve them well as the season wears on. The only thing stopping them from breaking into the top five is how top-heavy this league has remained.

7) Niagara - Losing Meghan McGuinness will hurt, but Victoria Rampado is a first team all-league talent that will carry the Purple Eagles far as long as she can remain effective.

8) Monmouth - As mentioned before, development is key for Christina Mitchell. If she becomes a force down low, the Hawks will finish higher than this rating.

9) Saint Peter's - Sajanna Bethea will become a household name this season as the Peacocks continue their rebuild.

10) Manhattan - John Olenowski is optimistic about his talent this year, and with good reason. Expect significant improvement from his young core as the Jaspers get into the meat of the conference schedule.

11) Rider - Julia Duggan may garner all-conference honors this season, but it will most likely be a long year in Lawrenceville.

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