Here's another in the "Team Report" series, looking back at the just-concluded season and doing a crystal-ball look ahead at conference programs.
Up now ...
2013-14 RECORD: 8-12 in the MAAC, 7th place; 10-20 overall.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Getting up to a tie for seventh place in league play was a relative success, considering the program unexpectedly lost three key starters with remaining eligibility in the spring/summer months prior to the just-concluded season. It left the team without experienced inside play, but that issue was resolved as the season progressed and as 6-foot-2 frosh forward Victoria Rampado got acclimated to college play. She was the best of a strong crop of first-year "bigs" in the league, capturing the MAAC's Rookie of the Year Award. She averaged 8.9 points and 5.4 rebounds, but was at her best down the stretch, averaging 13.1 points and 7.4 rebounds in the team's final eight games, surely a sign of things to come. Reserve forwards 6-1 Gabby Baldasare and 6-3 Sam Lapszynski contributed inside off the bench (Baldasare, a rising senior, had a double-double, 11/11, effort in January against Iona), but mostly the Purple Eagles played with one post and four perimeter players. Graduating senior Chanel Johnson, a small forward, actually led the team in rebounding and scoring. Offense also came from second-team all-MAAC pick Meghan McGuinness (12.9 ppg., including a superlative 29-point outburst that included 7-of-11 shooting from three-point range against Siena in mid-January). She made 84-of-196 treys on the season, her 42.9 percent long-range accuracy fourth-best in the conference. Another rising senior, 6-foot-0 Val McQuade (8.5 ppg.) was also proficient from long range (46 of 113). Rising senior guard Kelly Van Leeuwen provided steady play at the point (5.2 points, 4.5 assists), as did another rising senior, 5-10 Taylor McKay (6.0 ppg.). Things could have been a lot worse, particularly after a tough non-league schedule and a 2-9 start. But, Niagara went 8-11 overall after that and won three of its last five regular-season games.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Not enough inside play particularly early which precipitated the slow start. When Rampado got acclimated, though, the team got much better and despite the inside woes only got outrebounded by an average of 1.1 per contest ... There were also ball-handling issues. The Purple Eagles committed 4.1 turnovers more per game than opponents, which ranked them 10th of the 11 MAAC teams. Offensively, Johnson was an effective inside-outside player, but when McGuinness' shot wasn't falling there wasn't much else for scoring on a consistent basis until Rampado went on her late-season surge. The 3-2 regular-season finish seemed to provide some momentum, but the season ended abruptly with a 66-62 MAAC Tournament loss in the play-in round against Monmouth, an opponent Niagara had beaten in both regular-season meetings.
WHAT'S AHEAD: Johnson is gone, and that's a significant loss but not so much of one that Niagara can't overcome it. Every other player of significance returns, theoretically improved. McGuinness, a true gym rat, should build off a very good season and be a candidate for all-MAAC first-team honors in the upcoming season. Rampado is a effective post at both ends of the court, a piece not all teams in the league possess. McQuade, McKay, Van Leeuwen and Baldasare will all be seniors next season. Another member of the playing group, reserve guard Sylvia Maxwell, will be a junior. Teams with experienced upperclass players traditionally have the most success. What the 2013-14 Niagara team needed was just a little more help inside and a little better success at taking care of the ball. It's hard to expect freshmen to make big contributions, but signed recruits 5-11 power forward Kaylee Stroemple and 5-7 point guard Jamie Sherburne could help alleviate those issues.
REASONABLE EXPECTATION: No team had more off-season losses, particularly unexpected ones, than Niagara did at this time a year ago. Yet, somehow, coach Kendra Faustin coaxed a respectable season out of a team expected to finish last. With so many returnees, things should be at least as good next season. Expect Niagara to be no worse than middle of the pack, somewhere between fourth and seventh in 2014-15.