Sunday, May 15, 2011

Off-Season: A Look at Niagara Women

Here's another in the series looking at conference programs.

Up now ...


2010-11 RECORD: 0-18 in MAAC play, 1-29 overall.

2010-11 RECAP: The 0-18 conference record marked just the second time a MAAC team went through league play without a win since the expansion to an 18-game schedule in 1996 Iona also finished 0-18 in the 2002-03 season. Niagara's woes are easy to sum up: Not enough mature talent, not enough height and, by the end of the season, not enough bodies. Still, the Purple Eagles didn't give up. Against Rider, in a Feb. 18 game, Niagara pushed the contest into a third overtime before losing its best chance for a conference victory. The Purple Eagles, due to injuries and foul disqualifications, played the last two minutes with four players on the court. Junior point guard Grace Cunningham played the game's entire 55 minutes. Niagara did get one regular-season victory, a 52-51 decision over Penn of the Ivy League in its sixth game. After that, though, there came 24 straight losses.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Two years ago Niagara got off to a slow start before turning things around, a sign of team resiliency. This past season the Purple Eagles showed similar grit, but just couldn't duplicate the results. Those who saw Niagara play late in the season, though, attest that there was no `quit' in the team, that it was playing as hard in the final weeks as it had played at the season's start. But, the program had lost its top post players to graduation after 2009-10, and the primary replacement was up-and-down freshman Katie Gattuso who was eventually dismissed from the program (and she left school) with four games remaining. Otherwise the team's tallest player was 5-11. But, the experience of this past season should be invaluable. There is just one graduation loss, and the nine top returnees all played at least 14 minutes per game.. Freshmen Chanel Johnson, who had a 20-point/11-rebound performance against Iona in one game; and Shy Britton, who had a 16-point outburst against Saint Peter's, both look like promising young players who could make a nice step forward in the future.

WHAT WENT WRONG: It started early when standout sophomore point guard Kayla Stroman (12,0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.4 steals) suffered a severe foot injury and didn't play again after mid-December. A month later junior guard Ali Morris, who had taken over for Stroman, also suffered a season-ending injury. Then, Gattuso caused some problems and was eventually dismissed. Had everything gone right there still probably wasn't enough in place this season to seriously contend. But, Stroman's presence alone would have meant, maybe, a half-dozen more victories. Senior Liz Flooks was the team's top player, but the lack of consistent offense elsewhere meant she faced extra defensive attention every night.

WHAT'S AHEAD: There's no doubt that the team's continued spirited play despite its record bodes well for the program when more talent either comes aboard or develops. And, it looks like it's coming soon. Lauren Gatto, a 6-2 sophomore center who transferred to Niagara from the University of Chicago-Illinois (she averaged 3.8 points, 2.8 rebounds there as a freshman) becomes eligible for this coming season. Stroman should be back at full strength, and Johnson and Britton both have a year's experience. There are also plenty of quality role players returning, including Jess Flamm (5.5 points, 3.9 rebounds), Meghan Waterman (4th in the conference in steals), and Cunningham.

PREDICTION FOR 2011-12: Don't expect Niagara to battle Marist for the MAAC's top spot, but the Purple Eagles could make the most positive progress next season of any conference team. Gatto should help solve some of the team's post problems, Stroman will help with ball control for a team that averaged more than 21 turnovers per contest. The maturation of the young players and the presence of quality role players and depth could mean the program could claw its way toward the .500 level this year, which would be a considerable improvement.

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