Monday, October 17, 2016

MAAC Monday: Previewing the 2016-17 women's season

Iona may be reigning MAAC champion, but Tricia Fabbri and Quinnipiac present league's biggest challenge for a third consecutive year. (Photo by Josh Silverman/Q30 Television)

Last season's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament went almost as expected, with Quinnipiac and Iona affirming their status as class of the league all the way through to the championship game, where the Gaels took advantage of career performances from point guard Marina Lizarazu and forward Joy Adams to defeat the then-reigning champion Bobcats, who lost point guard and senior leader Maria Napolitano to a torn ACL in their semifinal victory against Monmouth.

Iona heads into their title defense with a gaping hole down low after Adams, the leading rebounder in MAAC history, graduated, but head coach Billi Godsey; who cemented her status as a coach on the rise at the mid-major level, returns Lizarazu to a backcourt that also sees Alexis Lewis join the starting lineup after capturing co-Sixth Player of the Year honors as a freshman. Philecia Atkins-Gilmore and shot blocking sensation Karynda DuPree also return to New Rochelle, giving the Gaels three incumbent starters to further promote the winning culture.

Their vanquished foes have come back strong as well, proving that Tricia Fabbri does not rebuild in Hamden; rather, she simply reloads. Only Napolitano and reserve Tiffany Webster have departed from last season's rotation, leaving four returning starters to position the Bobcats near the front of the pack once again. Replacing Napolitano will not be easy, but no team maximizes their depth as well as Quinnipiac does. If the frontcourt of Aryn McClure, the MAAC Rookie of the Year last season, and Paula Strautmane develops as expected, the potential for a third 30-win season in five years becomes increasingly high with each passing game.

Fairfield, last year's preseason No. 1, loses four-year difference-maker Kristin Schatzlein and point guard Lizzy Ball, but returns both of its leading scorers in forwards Casey Smith and Kelsey Carey, as well as 6-foot-2 Samantha Cooper to give Joe Frager and the Stags one of the most formidable front lines in the conference. However, Fairfield will need their backcourt to step up early and often, as Frager has no incumbent guard on his roster that played more than seven minutes per game on average. Siena could be primed for a better season than last year's underachieving 14-18 mark, and head coach Ali Jaques is undoubtedly cognizant of the Saints' potential. Losing Margot Hetzke to injury after ten games was a huge blow to Siena's chances last season, and if the former MAAC Rookie of the Year is back at full strength this time around for a team that returns all but one player off its roster, the difference will be tangible.

Brian Giorgis faced major question marks last season with one of his youngest Marist teams over his tenure, and the youth is even more prevalent this season after the graduations of four-year starter Sydney Coffey and reigning MAAC Player of the Year Tori Jarosz. Junior guard Allie Clement is the only returning player who averaged more than six points per game last year, which means the Red Foxes will need to find offense, and fast. Manhattan welcomes a new head coach in Heather Vulin, and she benefits from a stacked cupboard left by her predecessor, John Olenowski. Amani Tatum was a revelation en route to winning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year honors a year ago, and full seasons for both Nyasha Irizarry and Kayla Grimme only make the Jaspers more deceptive.

Monmouth loses four of its five leading scorers, raising the onus on seniors Tyese Purvis and Christina Mitchell to increase their productivity in direct proportion. Sophomore McKinzee Barker flourished at the point guard spot, and should be much improved after a solid rookie campaign. Niagara loses two of its core seniors in Sam Lapszynski and Taylor McKay, but gets Victoria Rampado back after injuries limited the Purple Eagles' all-MAAC forward to just three games. Rampado and Kaylee Stroemple, who had a sophomore year worthy of Most Improved Player honors if the MAAC presented such an award, will keep head coach Jada Pierce's team relevant throughout the season. Niagara's crosstown rival, Canisius, loses Crystal Porter to graduation, yet Terry Zeh is resurgent with the backcourt trio of Maria Welch, Margret Halfdanardottir and Lauren D'Hont. Rebounding will be a major concern for the Golden Griffins, though, as they only have five forwards on the roster.

Rider will be much better than last season's eight-win squad, especially with senior guard Robin Perkins back for one more year alongside 6-foot-1 senior center Julia Duggan. The Broncs also return point guard Taylor Wentzel and a pair of three-point specialists in Lexi Posset and Kamila Hoskova. Finally, Saint Peter's has nowhere to go but up. The Peacocks bring back Sajanna Bethea and Talah Hughes for their junior seasons, but Pat Coyle will be counting on her supporting cast to make a bigger name for itself in order for the once-perennial MAAC powerhouse to escape the lower rungs of the standings.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Quinnipiac - Already the most complete team in the league, the Bobcats may very well be one year ahead of schedule by the time all is said and done. If you thought the 2013 and 2015 championship outfits were Tricia Fabbri's magnum opus, you may want to schedule a trip to the TD Bank Sports Center this season.

2) Iona - Life without Joy Adams will be different, but Marina Lizarazu leads a handful of familiar faces with championship experience. The Gaels will certainly not go quietly into the night this season.

3) Siena - Having Margot Hetzke back for a full season will make a world of difference for the Saints, who still have the core of their roster back; including guards Jackie Benitez, Kollyns Scarbrough and Denisha Petty-Evans, even if Hetzke is not back right away. Ali Jaques is certainly capable of coaching and winning the big game too, and Siena should be indicative of such more nights than not.

4) Niagara - Much like Margot Hetzke for Siena, the benefit of Victoria Rampado back for a full season will be fruitful for the Purple Eagles, who should be much improved from last season.

5) Fairfield - The Stags' backcourt is going to be a work in progress, but the front line will win them more games than inexperienced guards will cost them.

6) Manhattan - Losing Blake Underhill and Shayna Ericksen will hurt, but the Jaspers are still deep and talented. How defenses key in on Amani Tatum this season after she caught many teams off guard last year, as well as the uptempo style first-year head coach Heather Vulin is instilling, will be stories to watch throughout the year in Riverdale.

7) Marist - Could this be the end of the Brian Giorgis dynasty? The games are not played on paper, of course, but the perennial kingpin of the MAAC has more question marks this season than in any other in his 14-year tenure.

8) Canisius - The inverse of Fairfield, the Griffs have experienced guards but unproven forwards.

9) Monmouth - The Hawks will adjust on the fly to losing Sarah Olson and Jamiyah Bethune, and will need breakout seasons from Tyese Purvis and Christina Mitchell.

10) Rider - The Broncs have improved from last season. Unfortunately for them, most of the league has as well.

11) Saint Peter's - As Sajanna Bethea and Talah Hughes go, so too will the Peacocks, unless one of their secondary options asserts themselves.

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