Here's another in the series previewing conference programs for the upcoming season.
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2011-12 SEASON: 3-15 in league play, 11-19 overall. Lost to Iona, 61-60, in overtime in a play-in round game of the MAAC's post-season tournament.
KEY LOSSES: Guard Ali Heller (8.8 points per game), guard Alyssa Parsons (4.3 points, 3.0 assists), center Sarah Homan (4.5 points, 3.4 rebounds).
KEY RETURNEES: MyNeshia McKenzie, 5-11 junior guard/forward (10.8 points, 9.1 rebounds), 5-7 senior guard Sironda Chambers (10.0, 4.7), 6-2 senior center Caitlin Bopp (9.2, 7.3), 5-10 sophomore guard Emily Fazzini (7.1, 3.9), 6-0 senior center Carleigh Brown 96.4, 4.9)..
KEY ADDITIONS: Manon Pellet, 5-7 freshman guard (medical redshirt last season).
NOTES: A 10-5 start last season was the program's best in 18 years, but the Broncs couldn't keep that up after losing Ali Heller, the league's top long-range shooter, for the final 13 games after she suffered a knee injury, and Sironda Chambers to academics for the second semester. It meant Rider went 1-14 in its last 15 games. Still, the 11-19 overall record was progress after 5-25 and 4-26 finishes the previous two years. And, last season marked the first time the program lost fewer than 20 games since the 1999-00 season ... this year should be much better. Five of the top six scorers return. Another key player could have been 5-10 junior swingperson Shereen Lightbourne, but she recently suffered her second preseason ACL tear in two seasons and will be lost, again, for the upcoming season....McKenzie is definitely one of the league's better players, an athletic performer who led the league in rebounds last season ... The team should have little trouble on the boards. Besides McKenzie, Bopp was fifth in the MAAC in rebounds last year. Chambers is a good rebounder from the backcourt and Carliegh Brown, a 6-foot-0 center, is also capable on the boards. The team lost its leaders, guards Heller and Parsons, to graduation. Heller had 32 three-pointers in the 17 games she played. Parsons, who suffered a third major knee injury just before the MAAC tournament, was a gritty leader whose intangibles were invaluable ... The team, though, has capable replacements in 5-7 freshman Manon Pellet, a native of France who was scheduled to become eligible for last season's second semester before she suffered a knee injury. Pellet has considerable international experience and is expected to be a significant contributor. She sat out last season as a transfer and is eligible for this season. The backcourt also has sophomore Emily Fazzsini, who stopped in after Heller was hurt and averaged 7.1 ppg. as a freshman. And, then, there's Kornelija Valiuiskyte, a sophomore who is a native of Lithuania, who barely played for most of the season but got thrust into the starting lineup when Parsons went down prior to the MAAC tournament. She responded with 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals in 37 minutes, a harbinger of what could come. She also has considerable international experience, including eight games this summer as a member of Lithuania's under-20 national team that played in the European World Cup (she averaged 6.9 ppg.).
RIDER'S STRENGTH: Rebounding, athleticism, experience and depth. The team could go 10 deep this year, and that depth doesn't include three freshmen with good credentials. The Broncs could also throw a variety of styles at teams ... it could go big, using Bopp and Brown as a tandem up front, or go smaller and athletic ... That it didn't quit down the stretch, despite the personnel losses, and played so well in its one-point overtime loss in the MAAC tournament could have a positive impact on this season. Last year's 10-5 start was an indication that the Broncs can indeed turn around a long-suffering program should it maintain good health. Even with the recent loss of Lightbourne, the Broncs have some good athletic wing players in McKenzie and Chambers, and Fazzini is an emerging young player who showed the ability to be a good long-range sniper.
RIDER'S WEAKNESSES: While the backcourt is as deep and as talented as any in the league, there's inexperience at point guard. Valiuskyte and Pellet are the likely options there. Valiuskyte only played 19 games last season, and only averaged 8.5 per contest before she was on the court for 37 minutes in the MAAC tournament game. Pellet didn't play at all last year and is coming off a knee injury. The other situation that at least deserves watching is developing players' roles and distributing playing time.
REASONABLE EXPECTATION: The easy "out" is to look at Rider's history and automatically expect it to finish near the bottom of the standings once again. But, that would be a mistake. The Broncs' fast start last season showed they had turned the corner toward respectability. The program should take the next step this year, and the potential there is for a big step forward. As usual, Marist will almost assuredly be the conference's dominant team this season. But, no one else has more talent than Rider. If the point guard situation doesn't become a major issue, Rider should come closer to 20 wins than to 20 losses. A finish somewhere between second and fifth should happen.