Here's another in the series looking back and ahead at conference programs.
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2011-12 RECORD: 3-15 in MAAC play, 11-19 overall.
2011-12 RECAP: One wouldn't think that an 11-19 finish is anything to be proud about, but it's progress at Rider, considering it's the first time since a 14-14 finish in 1999-00 that the program didn't lose 20 games. It marked considerable progress after 5-25 and 4-26 finishes the previous two seasons. And, it might have been better had the team not lost 5-7 guard Sironda Chambers to academic problems after 19 games, and two senior guards (Ali Heller and Alyssa Parsons) to ACL injuries during the season. It all makes for much optimism for the program's future, a lot of that coming from a terrific start. The Broncs were 10-5 at one point, the program's best start in 18 years. And, then, Chambers was lost, Heller (the league's best long-range shooter) went down (in game No. 17) with an ACL and the early momentum was lost. Rider went 1-14 after the 10-5 start, although two of the losses came in overtime and three of them were by three points or less. The three victories did include ones over Niagara and Loyola, teams that finished in the top four in the regular-season standings. And, then, came a heart-breaking opening-round tournament loss in overtime to Iona, 61-60, when the Gaels scored the game-winning bucket with two seconds left to play.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: The fast start. The Broncs' 8-3 record against non-league opponents was the best of any conference team, although the opponents didn't exactly threaten to crack the Top 25 polls. Still, winning is something Rider hadn't experienced much of in a long time and the early success created considerable excitement around the program. Then, too, came the early victories over Niagara and Loyola, and the strong effort (despite being short-handed) in the conference tournament. Chambers gave the team an athletic perimeter player for the first 19 games until she was ruled ineligible to continue. There was no true go-to player (the leading scorer only averaged 10.6 points per game), but somehow Rider used balanced scoring and strong team play to win as many games as it did. Sophomore forward MyNeshia McKenzie (10.6, 9.1 rebounds) put up nice numbers. Freshman Emily Fazzini (7.1, 3.3) had some flashes of good play. And, another freshman, Kornelia Valiuskyte, thrust into the starting lineup for the MAAC tournament, looked good with 13 points in that event in the game against Iona.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Personnel losses. Had Chambers stayed eligible, and Heller and senior point guard Alyssa Parsons not gotten hurt, it's not hard to speculate that Rider might have approached the .500 mark overall this season. Heller went down in the 17th game of the year, and although Parsons went out to her third career ACL tear in the second-from-last weekend of the regular season, those losses were devastating. Neither Heller nor Parsons were among the most-gifted players in the MAAC in terms of pure talent, but both epitomized what players can become with dedication and hard work. Heller became the conference's top long-range shooter in her last two seasons, while the slight 5-foot-4 Parsons became a glue-like point guard over her career and the contributions of both went far beyond numbers. McKenzie's numbers were good, but some inconsistent play and effort for portions of the year had her coming off the bench for seeveral games during the season. Bopp, a nice inside player, suffered an early season injury, missed five games and her overall numbers suffered. By the end of the year the Broncs were starting two freshmen (Fazzini and Vasiuskyte) in the backcourt and that's never a good recipe.
WHAT'S AHEAD: Heller is the only one of the team's top six scorers who won't return. The team also loses inside role player Sarah Homan and the intangibles of Parsons. In essence, two senior guards (Parsons and Heller) are gone, and that loss of experience and mature play of itself is considerable. Rider will need this year's freshmen guards to mature quickly to duplicate or, potentially, improve on this this past season's record. But, it's more than possible. There's also another highly touted player who should be contributing next season. Guard Manon Pellet of France was in the program this past season but she also tore her ACL in a practice. If she's not back by the start of the season, she is expected to be ready before the semester break, at the latest, and should help. McKenzie and Chambers give the Broncs two athletic perimeter players at guard and small forward. And, a healthy Bopp, along with 6-0 junior Carleigh Brown (6.4, 4.9) give Rider some strong inside play. The program also added a talented transfer, 5-10 guard Lashay Banks from Cincinnati of the Big East (although she was a lightly used reserve at that level), who will be eligible in 2013-14.
PREDICTION FOR 2012-13: It will be hard to match the 10-5 start, but even the 11-19 overall finish created some momentum going into the upcoming season. There is finally enough talent in place for the Broncs to start having more success within the league. At worst, a middle-of-the-pack finish with the potential for a little better.