Thursday, May 1, 2014

Team Report: Marist Women To Chase Another Title

Here's another in the "Team Report" series taking a look back at the just-concluded season and a crystal-ball look at what might be ahead for conference programs.

Up now ...


2013-14 RECORD: 18-2 in MAAC play, tied for first place; 27-7 overall.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Plenty in a season that did contain some minor disappointments. But, just how disappointing can things have been (see below) when the team shared first place (11 straight seasons and counting of outright or shared regular-season titles), and won the MAAC's post-season tournament for its ninth straight trip to the NCAA event? Overall, the team's victory total marked the eighth straight season of at least 26 wins and 11th in a row of at least 20. Just about every other MAAC program would be happy to string, maybe, two or three 20-victory seasons in a row. Some would be overjoyed to get just one of those. The very obvious common denominator is Brian Giorgis, who long ago proved himself to be not only the best coach the MAAC has ever had (and, we're considering men's coaches, too), but one of the best anywhere at any level. His career .779 winning percentage in his 12 years in Poughkeepsie (306-87) is fourth-best among active Division I coaches. Only Geno Auriemma of UConn, Tara VanDerveer of Stanford and Kim Mulkey of Baylor have better ones ... Individually, there wasn't a real Player of the Year-caliber standout, although senior forward Emma O'Connor was a first-team all-MAAC selection. Instead, there were very solid parts, and this past season might have been one of Giorgis' best coaching jobs as he had an unusually balanced team ... All five starters averaged double figures ... Marist's success came through its usual methods, by minimizing mistakes. The team had the 10th-best field goal percentage (46.7) nationally, ranked 12th nationally (37.2 percent) in 3-point accuracy, committed the third-fewest amount of fouls (13.6 per game), had the 13th-best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.29) nationally and, almost as always, led the MAAC for fewest points allowed (60.1). Sophomore perimeter players Madeline Blaise (12.9 points, 4.0 rebounds) and Sydney Coffey (11.5, 3.4) both made significant strides off of their respective frosh seasons. Leanne Ockenden contributed more offensively (11.6, 4.6) this past season while capturing her second straight Defensive Player of the Year award; and, point guard Casey Dulin (10.8, 4.3, 4.8 assists) completed the balanced starting five. Tori Jarocz, the 6-3 transfer from Vanderbilt, came back quicker than expected from an off-season Achilles tendon injury to contribute (7.5, 3.7) as she played herself back into shape and improved as the season progressed. For a good portion of the year, freshmen forward Kat Fogarty and guard Brittini Lai were the team's top reserves and each showed promise for the future. Natalie Martinez-Gomez (66 assists vs. 39 turnovers) was also a valued reserve. Team-wise, Marist earned its first-ever homecourt victory over a ranked opponent, upsetting then-No. 20 ranked Oklahoma, 76-69. There was also a nice victory over perennial mid-major level power Bowling Green. There was also a nice "revenge" victory over Iona, which gave Marist its first conference loss of the season on a buzzer-beater by guard Damika Martinez. When the teams met again late in the season, Marist dominated with a 79-67 victory that wasn't even as close as the final score. And, finally, there was an impressive come-from-behind victory vs. Quinnipiac in the MAAC tournament's championship game in which Marist rallied from a 17-point deficit late in the first half to get the victory and yet another trip to the NCAA's.

WHAT WENT WRONG: It almost takes a magnifying glass to annually find anything to pick on about a Marist season, but there were some disappointments. There was a 1-4 non-league start, but the team's non-league schedule was the third most-difficult nationally. After that came 10 straight losses before another loss, this one to Iona in Poughkeepsie. It was the first conference loss for Marist after 36 straight victories, and it also ended a 42-game homecourt winning streak. And, there was another regular-season loss, a four-pointer to Fairfield. It's all relative, of course. Marist's two MAAC setbacks came by a combined total of six points. And, what program anywhere wouldn't be happy going through an entire season of league play with just two losses? But, after a 53-1 record in MAAC regular-season competition over the previous three seasons, a two-loss season became noteworthy to some extent ... Some of the team's early woes were related to injury. Dulin missed several games early with a foot injury, and Jarocz missed 14 early games recovering from her injury. Those personnel issues left the team relying more on freshmen Fogarty and Lai, something unusual for a coach who prefers to limit the playing time of first-year team members to help ease their transition to his system ... Jarocz was never truly at 100 percent, and Dulin had another setback at midseason when she suffered a broken nose that limited her effectiveness for several games. And, then, there was a tough draw in the NCAA tournament when Marist had to play Iowa on the Hawkeyes' home court. The Red Foxes suffered an 87-65 defeat.

WHAT'S AHEAD: More of the same type success, and more competition from Iona, which has the return of arguably the conference's two best players. Marist loses three key seniors (O'Conner, Ockenden and Dulin), probably its top three players from this past season, and teams rarely survive that type of personnel loss without some slippage. But, Marist might be the exception. Blais and Coffey, both rising juniors, will surely be a dynamic one-two offensive punch for the next two seasons. The point guard spot looks to be in good-enough hands between Lai, Marinez-Gomez and, maybe, incoming freshman Allie Clement, Maine's high school Player of the Year this past season. Rising sophomore Sydnie Rosalies, who only played 10 games after recovering from preseason shoulder surgery, could be another valuable perimeter player. If Jarocz can get close to 100 percent by next season, she would be the dominating post player Marist hasn't had in some time. And, Fogarty is likely to make the progression most in the program make entering their sophomore year.

REASONABLE EXPECTATION: For the first time in many years, Marist might not be the preseason favorite. But, at worst, it's the co-favorite with Iona. If Jarocz and/or Fogarty step up the inside play from a year ago, then Marist will indeed be the prime contender for another regular-season title. The Red Foxes certainly are one of next season's top two teams in the MAAC. And, considering how defense usually wins championships, Marist will probably be the favorite, come post-season tournament time, to earn another trip to the NCAA's.

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