Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Rider Womens' Fast Start Is No Fluke

The best record to date among women's teams in the MAAC?

Two teams currently have 6-3 non-league starts to the 2011-12 season, and one of them is Rider.

The Broncs share that status with Fairfield, an occurrence seemingly unlikely as Marist (currently 4-4) not having a winning record to date.

Actually, Rider's rise is one of the more-surprising, feel-good stories not only of this season but of many seasons.

To say times have been tough for the school's women's program is an understatement. The Broncs have never finished a season with an overall record above .500 since joining the MAAC in 1997. Over that time, they've had one winning season in league play, a 10-8 mark in 1999-00. Since that season Rider has been 41-157 in MAAC play and 67-253 overall for a stretch of the past 11 seasons.

No MAAC women's team has been any worse over that time.

And, now, at least for the start of the 2011-12 season, no women's team is any better than Rider.

The 6-3 start has understandably been a source of considerable pride and enjoyment for fifth-year coach Lynn Milligan and her players. But, there's also a strong understanding that this is just the beginning, that the Broncs aren't willing to be satisfied by a strong early start.

"We told the kids for years winning is fun, no doubt about it," said Milligan. "And, now we're winning. But the good thing is that our players understand where we are and what have to do to get where we want to be.

"Early success success is terrific, a tangible result for hard work. But we've got a very balanced team off the court. They're consistent day to day. They know enough not to look behind us, and not to look any further ahead than our next practice. They know this is a day-to-day process, that there are things we have to do every day. It's still only December, and no one has even played a MAAC game yet. We're doing everything we can to prepare ourselves for conference play."

The preparation for MAAC play this year, though, has involved tangible results ... real success and an ever-growing sense of confidence within the team that comes from success.

That began with two season-opening victories over Lafayette and Bucknell. The only losses to date have come against two strong Ivy League teams (5-2 Penn and 8-4 Princeton) and Georgetown (9-2) of the Big East.

The best win to date might have been 66-56 victory at Binghamton, one of the better teams in the America East Conference, on Saturday.

It has all helped build a confidence level that could propel Rider into the early January start of conference play.

"Getting those first two victories right away really helped give us the confidence we needed," added Milligan. "It showed our team that this process will work. It showed that if we do what have to do every day, good things will happen for us,:

Turning Rider around has been a process ongoing at Rider since long before Milligan was hired, but had its roots in early recruiting classes when she brought in current seniors 6-foot-3 forward Sarah Homan, and guards Ali Heller and Alyssa Parsons. Homan, the team's third-leading rebounder, and Heller, the reigning MAAC's Sixth Player of the Year honoree, come off the bench. Parsons has been a steadying influence as the starting point guard.

"One big difference this year is our senior class," said Milligan. "We didn't have a senior on last year's team ... no one last year understood the sense of urgency we talk about, that their time here is going to be over soon and that you don't want to leave with regrets. This year's seniors understand that. They want to leave their mark on our program. We've got an excellent senior class who has been here with us every step of the way and they understand how important is is to work hard. They're a good bunch of leaders."

Good enough that neither Homan nor Heller mind coming off the bench.

"On most teams in the MAAC they would start," said Milligan. "But they come off the bench and give us a spark. They both seem better sitting for a couple of minutes, watching how things are progressing and coming off the bench ready to play. It's a great advantage for us to make substitutions wit those two who arguably can better than players they come in for."

The team also had other talented starters returning, particularly 6-3 junior forward Caitlin Bopp and sophomore 5-11 forward MyNesia McKenzie. Bopp averages 9.0 points and 6.5 rebounds and McKenzie, last year's Rookie of the Year in the Conference, is even better this season averaging close to a double-double (13.1 points, 9.6 rebounds).

The playing rotation was also fortified by newcomers 5-7 guard Sironda Chambers (8.6, 4.9), a junior college transfer, and freshman guard Emily Fazzini (5.1, 2.7), this past week's conference Rookie of the Week. Returnee 6-0 junior forward Carleigh Brown has also been effective, averaging 5.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in 17.4 minutes of playing time per contest.

Milligan is far from alone in enjoying the team's early run of success. Her team's seniors, who had a 19-71 overall record over the past three seasons, are finally able to think about leaving a winning season as their mark.

"This feels good, just knowing all the hard work we've gone through ... all the summers we put in at school and the effort we put in during preseason is finally paying off," said Heller.

"We have a lot of good leadership. The team is a lot more cohesive this year than in the past. And, starting off the season with those two wins right away was a confidence builder. It was important, coming off last season (5-25 overall) that we see things turn around right from the start.

"Still, we've got to keep the big picture in mind. This start doesn't mean anything when MAAC play begins, and we know when that first game is ... we've got it circled on the calendar.."

But, the big picture goes beyond what success Rider might have this season. Not only is there a solid group of senior leaders in place, but the program also has enough young talent to indicate that this year's team won't be a one-year anomaly.

And, if things continue to go well for the Broncs this year and in the future?

"I think we're going to surprise a lot of people this year," said Heller. "And, it will be nice to be able to look back and say that we were the ones who started the turnaround."

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