Here's another in the "Team Report" series looking back and ahead at conference teams.
Up now ...
2012-13 RECORD: 9-9, fifth place in MAAC play, 15-16 overall.Won a first-round conference tournament game, 59-54, over Rider. Lost in the semifinal round, 61-36, to Marist.
2012-13 RECAP: Every player of any significance returned from the previous season's team that finished 9-9 in regular-season conference play and nearly upended Marist in the league tournament before losing in overtime. But, this past season's team turned in the same .500 record and got beat handily by the Red Foxes in this past season's tournament. The team never really seemed to get its footing, winning more than two games in succession just once. It did have a nice five-game stretch at midseason, winning four of those games, but then only went 2-4 down the stretch of regular-season play.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Lauren Gatto continued to prove she's one of the MAAC's better "bigs," averaging 14.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and earning first-team all-MAAC honors. She was second in the league in field-goal percentage (49.0) Meghan McGuinness continued to be a superlative long-range threat (57 treys on the season, and a solid .354 percent accuracy), and guard Kayla Stroman was among the better point guard in the league with 126 assists against 102 turnovers. She was No. 2 in the MAAC for assists at 4.0 per contest. There was considerable depth, with nine different players each getting at least five starts during the season. The strong mid-season stretch included victories over Canisius, Rider, Loyola and Saint Peter's. Niagara, in fact, beat a very solid Rider squad in both regular-season meetings, as well as the first-round tournament victory.
WHAT WENT WRONG: It's nice to have depth, but to have so many players move in and out of the starting lineup was an indication that there were a lot of solid players on the roster, but very few who merited regular starting duties. Only Gatto and Stroman, the team's best two players, started all 31 games. No one else started more than 18. Gatto was the only double-figure scorer. McGuinness was next at 9.6, and no other player averaged more than 6.6. There were times that Shy Britton (6.5 ppg.), an athletic swingperson, looked like she'd step into a major role (particularly with a 20-point/7-rebound effort in a game against Siena in just 27 minutes), but too many other times when she was content to defer to others. And, there really wasn't a strong second option on the boards. The next-best rebounders were McGuinness and Stroman (the point guard), both at 4.3 per outing. Two years ago Niagara made a 6-2 late-season run before losing to Marist in OT of the MAAC tournament. Better things appeared likely for this coming season, but they never truly materialized. Still, this is a program that was 0-18 in MAAC play and 1-29 overall just two seasons ago (2010-11), so back-to-back 9-9 conference finishes mean there has significant progress in recent seasons.
WHAT'S AHEAD: Maybe 2013-14 will be the year that Niagara truly contends. The only senior on this past season's roster was Jess Flamm, an effective reserve. However, Stroman, a fourth-year junior this season, appears to be headed elsewhere to complete her fourth year of eligibility after graduating from Niagara this year. Replacing a point guard as good as Stroman won't be easy. Kelly Van Leeuwen (81 assists/62 turnovers) appears to be the likely player to move into that position. Had Stroman come back, Niagara had the recipe for success ... a veteran team that had been together for awhile. Stroman's loss means the absence of a key ingredient, though. Still, if athletic players like Britton and Chanel Johnson step up, Niagara should still be strong. The program also has two incoming recruits, a 6-2 post player, Victoria Rampado from Niagara Falls, Ont., and 5-11 sharpshooter Emily Granruth from Virginia.
PREDICTION: If Stroman were coming back, it would be pretty easy to predict the Purple Eagles would be fighting to be one of the top MAAC teams (behind Marist). Without her the team is still fairly strong, particularly if there's the expected improvement from players as they progress throughout their careers. It's not hard to envision Niagara finishing in the top five of next season's 11-team league.