Sunday, May 23, 2010

Women's Report: Marist Likely to Defend

Here's the latest, and final, installment in the "10 Teams in 10 Days" series looking back and ahead at MAAC women's programs.

Up now ...

MARIST (15-3 in MAAC play in 2009-10, 26-8 overall)

RECAP: Fairfield coach Joe Frager put Marist's 2009-10 accomplishments in proper perspective: "The rest of us would do anything to be 15-3 in the league." For Marist, though, 15-3 is almost below the program's lofty standards. It marked the first time since the 2003-04 season that the Red Foxes lost three league contests, which signifies the domination the team has held within the league. Since the start of the 2004-05 season Marist is 112-12 in regular-season MAAC play with six of those losses by three points or less. This past season's losses were to Niagara, to Fairfield (61-60) and a season-ending/meaningless setback at Manhattan. What Marist has become far transcends a single season. The program has been the conference's representative to the NCAA tournament for five straight seasons. Three years ago it advanced to that event's Sweet 16 round (winning two NCAA tournament games), the only program, either men's or women's, ever to get that far. It has been the conference's regular-season champion for seven straight years. Head coach Brian Giorgis' won-loss record over eight seasons is 194-63, a .755 winning percentage that is the 9th highest among all active coaches. The team's five non-league losses came against West Virginnia, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, St. Bonaventure and Georgetown. Local interest has never been higher. A per-game average of 2,141 came out for home games this past season, a figure that was better than all but one men's program (only the Siena men, who play home games in an arena, drew more fans for home games). Senior forward Rachele Fitz firmly established herself as arguably the best female player in league history. Junior guard Erica Allenspach was a first-team all-league performer, and sophomore guard Corielle Yard was a second-team choice who could easily have been on the first team.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Other than the three league losses, pretty much everything. Hard to find fault with a 26-win season. Fitz finished with 2,447 career points, just 20 shy of the conference's all-time record (former Loyola standout Patty Stoffey finished with 2,467), and 1,066 rebounds, the 6th-best total in MAAC history. Her career field-toal percentage (.582) is second-best all-time and her .846 free-throw percentage is fourth in league annals. She was to the Marist women's program what Rik Smits was to the men's program more than two decades ago. Allenspach, already a highly regarded player, became one of the league's elite performers. Yard, who flashed ability as a freshman, also became established as a a conference standout. The team went legitimately nine deep, and the depth was the best in the conference. Marist not only has talent, but intelligence. Its 13.5 turnovers per game was the sixth-best total nationally. It was all enough for another trip to the NCAA, an occurance that, by now, is almost taken for granted.

WHAT WENT WRONG: One has to look pretty hard to find deficiencies. One was rebounding as Marist played to an 0.9 rebound-per-game deficit. Two of the three league losses were puzzling. Niagara had a nice second-half turnaround, but it was still a setback to a team that finished with a .500 conference record. Manhattan, at 10-8, was only slightly better and neither of those teams were close to the Red Foxes in terms of overall talent. And, then, there was the NCAA tournament loss to Georgetown, 62-42. Marist just didn't have any answers for the Hoya's clear advantages in quickness and athleticism.

WHAT'S AHEAD: Were the three league losses the first signs that there are proverbial chinks in the program's armor? Possibly, but players like Yard and Allenspach could both be first-team all-stars next season and will likely help ensure the Red Foxes are still the MAAC's best team. Still, it's tough to lose key players year after year, and Fitz's departure will be the toughest of all. The program has lost league all-stars in the past, but, now, it's losing the conference's all-time top player. Lynzee Johnson, a tough sparkplug performer, is also gone. Kate Oliver, a 6-4 freshman, flashed some ability, but mostly with perimeter shooting. Unless she becomes stronger in the post, rebounding could be a greater issue this coming season, although Brandy Gang, a -2 sophomore, is likely to help out there as her role increases. Kristine Best, a 5-4 sophomore, is another emerging perimeter player. The program also has three recruits coming in, with 5-11 forward Emma O'Connor seemingly the most-likely of those to get into the playing group. Count on this, though: the team will continue to play intelligently and effectively. Giorgis has clearly established himself as the MAAC's top coach and his presence alone almost ensures success.

PREDICTION FOR 2010-11: First place. Allenspach and Yard will both contend for Player of the Year honors. But, those two are the only returnees who averaged more than 4.9 points per game. A key for Marist in recent years is that it has gotten strong offensive production from at least three players every year. It needs a third to step up next season. Seemingly, though there is enough otherwise returning to ensure the Red Foxes will continue their reign, particularly if another decent source of offensive production steps up. Marist might not be quite as dominant as some of its past teams, but the rest of the MAAC doesn't look like it has quite caught up yet.

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