Here's the final preview of a MAAC conference team. Up now ...
2009-10 RECORD: 15-3 in MAAC play, 26-8 overall.
KEY RETURNEES: 5-9 senior guard Erica Allenspach (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists), 5-8 junior guard Corielle Yarde (13.7 points, 6.1 rebounds), 6-4 sophomore center Kate Oliver (4.9 points, 2.8 rebounds), 6-2 junior forward Brandy Gang (3.4 points, 1.6 rebounds).
KEY LOSS: Forward Rachele Fitz (17.7 points, 8.2 rebounds).
COACHES' PREDICTION: Picked for first in the preseason poll of conference coaches.
NOTES: Losing Fitz is as big an individual loss as any conference team. The 6-1 forward finished as the all-time No. 2 scorer and No. 6 rebounder for career totals in conference history. She was a key figure in the last four of the program's active five-year run of NCAA tournament appearances.
Even in her absence, though, everyone expects the Red Foxes to remain atop the league standings, and it's understandable with two of the MAAC's better players returning in senior guard Erica Allenspach and junior guard Corielle Yard. Allenspach was named the preseason Player of the Year, and Yarde a first-team preseason pick. But, the concern seemed to be who would step up to be the third offensive cog and, after a 3-1 start to this season, it appears the Red Foxes not only found one other good scorer, but two. Junior 6-4 center Oliver is averaging a team-best 12.3 points thus far, while 6-2 junior forward Gang is next at 11.8 points per game. Allenspach and Yard average 9.8 and 9.3 points, respectively.
What that shows is that Marist will be more of team that gets production from a variety of players rather than having a singular go-to performer. As head coach Brian Giorgis said in the preseason: "I don't know exactly what I have, but I've got a lot of it." Translation: good solid players across the board.
Elise Caron, mostly a reserve until now, has stepped into the starting lineup and averages 5.8 points and 4.3 assists. And, Kristine Best, who started 32 games last year, is coming off the bench. Any team with a player as good as Best as a reserve is pretty darned good.
But, we already knew that about Marist, the league's dominant program for as long as any conference team has ever been. The Red Foxes have been so good that last year's 15-3 record bordered on being dispappointing, and was the first time the team lost three league games in a season since 2003-04. Since the start of the 2004-05 season Marist has been 112-12 against conference opponents with six of those losses coming by three points or less.
The team does everything well, although it faced a slight rebounding disadvantage last year that was more than covered up by a plus-72 turnover figure.
All-around quality play will be even more important this year, though, without Fitz. But, so far, that doesn't seem like any kind of problem.
HOW MARIST WILL SUCCEED: While there isn't the one shining star that has been in place in recent years, there's more than enough quality through the team's top eight or nine best players to think Marist will win another league title. The Red Foxes have three or four players coming off the bench who would strart for several other conference teams. They'll succeed by not having any real weakness at any position, and by playing better together than everyone else. It certainly looks like Oliver and Gang can provide a potent enough front court to go along with the best group of perimeter players. And, when things get tough, both Yarde and Allenspach can step up and make big plays on their own.
COACH'S COMMENTS: "We were very fortunate to have someone like Rachele Fitz around," said coach Giorgis. "But, we have to move on, and that's what we've done. I like what we've seen so far. We've got a couple of the best guards in the conference in Allenspach and yarde. They both had great seasons last year and we expect more of the same from them. We've got a lot of kids who didn't play a lot last year coming back, too."
PREDICTION: Every season, it seems, Marist loses key pieces and merely reloads rather than rebuild, and there doesn't seem to be much doubt the same thing will happen this year. If Oliver and Gang continue to play as well as both have through the first four games then there aren't many weaknesses here. Without one real go-to player, maybe Marist loses three conference games again this year. Maybe even four. But, that will still be good enough to secure another conference championship. And, if things fall into place ... maybe the Red Foxes will run up a better record than last year.