Women's B-ball looks to score
The young coach and the two starters sat dejected, tears freshly dried, biting on their bottom lips.
It wasn't supposed to end this way for the second-seeded AU Eagles - going out in the second round of the Patriot League Women's Basketball Tournament, losing to sixth-seeded Army. Head Coach Shann Hart, sophomore forward Chanel Hunt and junior guard Chanel Spriggs knew they had let an opportunity slip away.
This year, the trio returns, determined not to let another opportunity for Patriot League supremacy elude them. Although the Eagles lost four players, the squad they have now is one of quickness, defense, improved offense and senior leadership.
"We're an experienced team," Hart said. "We recall going out sooner than expected and with the leadership we have, I think we want it more this time."
And, in a weakened PL, this may be the Eagles' best shot. Hart knows that even though Holy Cross lost its senior leaders, Liz O'Connor and Katie O'Keefe, it is still the team to beat.
Elsewhere in the PL, Bucknell lost All-American and 27-ppg scorer Molly Creamer and Army lost floor leader Amy Saal to graduation.
This year's Eagles team should resemble last year's in that they will be led offensively by Hunt, who is an early favorite for PL Player of the Year.
"She's an exciting player and an inside presence," Hart said. "I think she's the best player in this league."
Accompanying Hunt will be Spriggs, who frustrated offenses last year with her tenacious defense (she was sixth in the nation in steals per game). In addition to her prowess on defense, Spriggs has been in the gym all summer working on her offensive game.
"She's really progressed this summer and will be an offensive force," Hart said.
With Spriggs and Hunt, the Eagles could have the best inside-out threat in the league, and arguably one of the best in the country.
One issue that is never far from the Eagles is the revolving door at point guard. Senior Kaitlyn Schuyler, junior Joanna Barnes and junior Damarah Rhymer return in what has become a three-headed monster at the point.
Schuyler's leadership and defense, Barnes' mid-range jumper and overall offensive game and Rhymer's quickness and energy make it hard to keep any of the three on the bench. Hart still doesn't know who will be in the lineup on Nov. 21 when the Eagles open up against University of North Carolina-Asheville.
"I don't know who will start, but the way I look at it, it's better to have three good ones than none," Hart said.
The glaring weakness for the Eagles last year was in the post, as senior Mariam Veppumthera and freshman Katie Walsh didn't provide much offensively. Both of them are gone, and they are replaced by 6-foot-5-inch freshman Kimesha Junkins.
Junkins, a former team MVP in high school, will see significant time in the middle, and should provide a more formidable inside presence than the Eagles have had in Hart's first three years here.
Junkins' development may be the most important question for the Eagles. If she can become dominant inside, it will allow Hunt to step out to the 10-foot range where her jumper is automatic and keep the superstar a little fresher, as she won't have to constantly be banging under the basket.
Along with Junkins comes talented freshman Tara Williams, who may jump into the point guard race. "We've added a real good freshman class," Hart said. "Kimesha and Tara will make impacts on this team."
The Eagles also have Kim Salem, who came on at the end of the year, especially in the tournament. If she can become the third scorer behind Hunt and Spriggs, this team could be limitless. Her knack for finding the ball and putting it in the basket is unmatched on this team.
One thing AU has going is its two Angels, McNatt and Jordan. McNatt, the Eagles' most physical player, is a senior who must lead by example. She will probably see more time at the small forward position and she has to play her trademark defense, while also converting on offense.
Meanwhile, Jordan, who red-shirted last year, will probably take over for departed Katryn Costenbader as the team's most reliable outside shooter. She's instant offense, but if she wants to stay on the floor for Hart's team, her defense must be frenetic.
Sophomore Alicia Zorzetto and frequent starter Jenyce Woodruff are back to provide some rebounding and scoring.
Woodruff was one of the Eagles' most consistent performers last year, constantly playing hard and often providing a spark.
Zorzetto should see a lot more time and must prove that she is Hunt's heir apparent at the power forward spot.
No matter how solid the Eagles are on offense, Hart's main focus is on defense.
"I'm a defensive coach and I want five girls out there playing defense for 40 minutes a night," said Hart.
This year's schedule features a tough early test at the University of Arizona Classic, where the Eagles will face Arizona, University of Massachusetts and Utah State. An early-season win there would do wonders for the confidence of the Eagles.
The Eagles also bring in Liberty, a top-50 team, on January 6. The season will ultimately revolve around a weekend in late February, though, when Holy Cross comes in on Friday, Feb. 22, and the team Hart calls "the most dangerous in the league," the Colgate Raiders, enter Bender on Sunday, Feb. 24.
While the Eagles were successful last year, they weren't aiming to be No. 2. This team, under the tutelage of defensive-minded Hart and the senior leadership of defensive genius Spriggs and offensive star Hunt, will stop at nothing short of an NCAA Tournament bid, and they may not even stop there.
This is McNatt's last chance, Schuyler's last chance, and Spriggs' last chance. Take three of the best defensive stoppers out of this lineup and the team will be drastically different next year.
"This is a big year for us," Hart said. "We can make a run."
Hopefully, the run goes deeper than the second round of the PL Tournament, because if it doesn't, the tears certainly won't be dried and the bottom lips will be bitten on. This is the year for AU Women's Basketball.