Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Reloaded Quinnipiac shoots for championship repeat

Despite losing all five starters and her first three conference games this season, Tricia Fabbri has Quinnipiac positioned for a repeat as regular season MAAC champions going into final weekend before conference tournament. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone)

Only three coaches have ever won back-to-back Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships. None of those three, however, accomplished that feat one year after losing all five starters from a team that won 31 games and powered through the league in its first title incarnation.

Then again, Tricia Fabbri is not just any coach.

With a conference record of 56-10, including MAAC tournament games, Fabbri and Quinnipiac roll into the Times Union Center this weekend in top form, winners of 17 straight after dropping their first three league contests to begin the season, and have already repeated as regular season crown holders as the Bobcats prepare for the next step in their title defense, which comes Friday at noon against either Canisius or Niagara.

"I just like how we finished out the season," the 21-year veteran coach remarked after clinching a second straight No. 1 seed with wins over Fairfield and Iona to tune up for the tournament, the latter victory coming in a winner-take-all game at the Hynes Athletics Center against a Gaels team led by conference Player of the Year contender Joy Adams. "I thought we performed really well down the stretch. There was a lot riding on every game, and we handled the pressure."

"It's a testament to the staff that I have that's been able to: a) recruit incredible classes, and b) the player development of the players that were in uniform last year, but didn't have a significant role," she added, addressing the ability of Quinnipiac to remain at the top of the league despite such a high roster turnover from last season. "It's been a lot of fun to watch the growth of players throughout the season and watch them improve."

The surge that Quinnipiac rides with them into Albany brings back memories of last season's dominance, when the Bobcats ran the table in both the regular season and postseason en route to 23 consecutive league victories, but even while Fabbri admits the complexity in comparing one season to the next, she still managed to enjoy her program's latest dose of success.

"Each season is like its own lifetime," she admitted. "Last year, the team was just so driven. We got off the bus and didn't have a hiccup, and our margin of victory was so impressive. This year's been different with a younger team, but it might be more fun. The fact that we've been able to get better and stay in the new year step-for-step with what we were able to do last year has been pretty impressive."

A large amount of credit for that has to go to the Bobcats' pair of rookies on the interior, both of whom were deserving MAAC All-Rookie selections in Aryn McClure and Paula Strautmane. While McClure has done an excellent job of replacing Val Driscoll as a rim protector down low, the role that Strautmane has assumed bears greater significance, considering the Latvian forward is essentially succeeding two four-year pillars of excellence in Hamden, taking over for both Nikoline Ostergaard and Samantha Guastella.

"Her development, and her skill and her size, her athleticism, is really special," Fabbri proudly gushed, praising Strautmane. "I think her and Aryn are that special, next-level athlete with skill that this league hasn't seen too much of, and is just fun to watch get better and comfortable."

"Boy, she can play, and she just put us right back where we left off this year," Fabbri said of Strautmane. "Just assimilating over here in a whole new country as quickly as she did speaks to the character and quality of a young lady that she is. She didn't come over here until school started, and we're usually afforded the luxury of our freshmen coming in during the summertime. She's just an incredible young lady, and we're glad to have her."

The entire Bobcat roster will be counted on this weekend to bring a second straight title, and third in the last four years if you count the 2013 Northeast Conference championship, to Hamden. Not surprisingly, the approach in the camp of the reigning champions will not change from day to day, because why mess with a good thing?

"This is why we do what we do," said Fabbri. "We wouldn't have it any other way. If we're going to be No. 1, we're certainly going to earn it."

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