Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Marist Still Rolling, Despite Injuries to Post Players

It only took the first four games of women's regular-season play for nine of the MAAC's 10 teams to suffer at least one loss.

The remaining unbeaten team in league play?

That would be Marist.

Who would have guessed, right?

After all, the Red Foxes have "only"won the last nine regular-season titles, putting up a 145-17 regular-season won-loss record against MAAC opponents over that time.

Death, taxes and the Marist women's team.

So, what's so noteworthy about a 4-0 start this year?

After all, coach Brian Giorgis had three returning starters and a bench full of solid role players waiting their turn to become featured performers. On top of that, it looked like he finally had the type inside strength, with Vanderbilt transfer 6-3 Tori Jarosz and highly touted 6-5 freshman Delaney Hollenbeck, that not only ensured continued success in the MAAC but, maybe, against higher-level opponents, too.

And, then, Jarosz suffered a broken wrist in Marist's first game and Hollenbeck only got into six games before leg issues forced her out. Both front-court players are out for the season, according to Giorgis.

It's hard enough for a coach to adjust to the expected losses of key players from year to year. But, Giorgis not only lost two key players unexpectedly early this season, but they were his only real post players.

Suddenly, with a season already underway, Giorgis had to make drastic changes to his team's playing style.

"We're very different now (than at the beginning of the season)," said Giorgis. "The worst part is that, now, we're very thin up front.  It was weird to lose both centers. This was going to be the first year in some time that we had good height. And, then, we lost both of them. We had 6-5 and 6-3 up front. Now, we have to go with 6-2 (Elizabeth Beynnon, who is more a swing player than a post) and a couple of 6-footers."

Now, Giorgis goes with a roster whose leading rebounder averages just 4.9 per game, and find ways to win games despite a rebounding disadvantage of 6.6 per game so far.

"We've just gone back to doing what we do best, and that's to play defense." said Giorgis. "That's nothing different for us. But we have had to do some things differently on defense."

Defense? Even without a true post player, Marist is giving up an average of just 49 points over its first four league games, against opponents expected to be the Red Foxes' primary competition this year.

Loyola, picked to finish third in the coaches' preseason poll, only scored 38 points against Marist and, early in the second half, trailed 49-14. Its standout, senior guard Katie Sheahin, who was the coaches' choice for Preseason Player of the Year, was held scoreless in that contest.

"We've got probably the best on-the-ball defender in the league in Leanne Ockenden," said Giorgis, "but that was more of a team effort. It was good, solid team defense. When Katie would get by Leanne on a screen, we had someone else stepping up."

It doesn't hurt that those stepping up are often experienced returnees from a team that finished 17-1 in league play and 26-8 overall a year ago, players like Elizabeth Beynnon, Emma O'Connor, Ockenden, Casey Dulin, Kristina Danella and Kristine Best. Beynnon, Danella and Best are seniors. The other three are juniors.

It also doesn't hurt that the team is as balanced as any Marist team ever with the top five scorers averaging between 11 and 8.8 points per game.

"This is probably as balanced a team as we've ever had," admitted Giorgis. "We're in a situation in which anyone can step up and make a big play. When you get to the end of a close game and have to run a play, you just go to whoever has been hot and run a play for her.

"We don't have that one superstar player. It makes what were doing this year a little more rewarding, at least for me."

And, it also doesn't hurt that Marist gets ready for MAAC play by playing as difficult a non-conference schedule as Giorgis can arrange.

Last year Marist's slate of non-league opponents was rated the sixth most-difficult nationally. This year, it was rated the third most-difficult. The Red Foxes played four teams rated in the top 15 nationally earlier this year.

"I'm a big believer in playing a tough non-league schedule," said Giorgis. "We see things from those teams that we don't see from teams in our league. Now, when we see pressure, for instance, it isn't as good a pressure as we've seen from Kentucky."

So far, Marist has seen the best of the MAAC in its early games, already beating Fairfield and Iona (both 3-1 in conference play), Rider (2-2) and Loyola (the coaches' choice for third in their preseason poll).

The next showdowns come this weekend when the Red Foxes are at 3-1 Canisius on Friday and at 2-2 Niagara (picked for second in the preseason poll) on Sunday.

Giorgis knows that, as always, his team has the proverbial league-favorite's target on its back.

"You'd rather have it that way than the other way," he said. "But the conference is interesting this year that it's a lot more closer in terms of top-to-bottom competitiveness as we've seen in the past. This is a year where if you don't come to play our best you're going to go down."

So far, so good for Marist. But, it's not business as usual for the Red Foxes, not after losing its only two true post players, a situation no other MAAC team would likely be able to endure and continue to rack up wins as if almost nothing ever happened.

"I've been extremely pleased with how we've been playing," added Giorgis. "This group is extremely fun to coach. But, we need each other to be successful. It has to be the ultimate team effort. So far, we've certainly exceeded my expectations."

The result is more of the same from the Marist women's program, but this year with some unexpected adversity to overcome along the way.

After nine consecutive regular-season conference titles, expectations are always for more of the same at Marist.

And, then, comes the early season losses of the team's two tallest players, both talented post performers.

Suddenly Marist seemed vulnerable. Yet, somehow, Marist remains the MAAC's top team right now.

No comments: