Marist Women's Basketball Bringing Respect to Mid-Majors

Travis MillerAnalyst IOctober 29, 2008

Pick somewhere to start.

Five consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season titles, three straight NCAA tournament appearances, or perhaps 69 wins in its last 72 conference games.

Despite a list of accolades that just keeps growing, the Marist Women's basketball team remains humble. Still, the Red Foxes have the opportunity to become a mainstay among the elite—shades of what Gonzaga's men's team began to do in 1999.

The Red Foxes and the Bulldogs have similar track records. School enrollment is about 4,500, and neither school had much, if any, notoriety from any of its athletic programs before one hiring changed everything.

Marist has lost less and less since head coach Brian Giorgis took over in 2002 and has dropped seven games or fewer each of the last four years. Though it will be very difficult to match, let alone improve upon, last year's 32-3 mark, stranger things have happened.

Marist started turning heads in the 2007 NCAA tournament when it shocked Ohio State and Middle Tennessee State to advance to the Sweet 16. No team ranked as low as Marist (13) had ever advanced that far. Though a loss to eventual national champion Tennessee ended the dream, the Red Foxes proved they belong.

In its 2007-2008 campaign, Marist set a school record with 32 wins, going undefeated in the MAAC and only losing two games in the regular season. The Red Foxes won 21 consecutive games heading into the NCAA tournament, also earning a national ranking in the regular season for the first time in program history.

The Cinderella story was short-lived in 2008, but not before Marist notched another NCAA tournament victory on its belt, a first round win over DePaul. LSU, a Final Four team, knocked out the Red Foxes in the second round.

Now heading into the 2008-2009 season, expectations continue to grow. Giorgis brought in one of the nation's top 50 recruiting classes to fill the shoes of four departed seniors.

Among the losses are starting point guard Nikki Flores, center Meg Dahlman, a 1,000-point scorer, and forward Sarah Smrdel, the 2008 MAAC tournament most valuable player and one of the best bench players in the conference.

Junior Rachele Fitz, a preseason second-team All-American selection, is prepared to lead the team offensively, as she scored her 1,000th point in February and is on pace to shatter the school's scoring record. She was named the MAAC Player of the Year last year, and needless to say, she was also named MAAC Preseason Player of the Year this season.

Fitz has backup, too. Seniors Julianne Viani and Courtney Kolesar know what to do with the rock. Viani was top 25 in the nation in assist to turnover ratio last season and kept the team in the game in its NCAA tournament loss to LSU, dropping 21 points, 15 from beyond the arc.

Kolesar missed last season with a knee injury but led the team in three-point field goal percentage the previous year.

Still not convinced?

Sophomore Erica Allenspach was named MAAC Rookie of the Year, and classmate Elise Caron was the Canadian High School Player of the Year her senior year. Those two haven't even been integrated into the offense yet.

There is a gap to fill under the rim, where Dahlman and Smrdel both stood 6'3". Expected to inherit the role are 6'3" sophomores Sarah Huff and Maria Laterza, but neither saw significant playing time their freshman year, the only potential dent in the Red Foxes' armor.

Marist doesn't have the luxury of looking past any opponent, but sportswriters do. The Red Foxes' first real test comes the day before Thanksgiving when they visit the Paris sisters in Oklahoma.

Nobody outside of Poughkeepsie expects Marist to win that game, given the matchup problems inside the paint, but if the Sooners aren't prepared with a solid long-range defense, they could be in a world of trouble.

Three points are usually worth more than two, and Poughkeepsie's finest ranked 22nd in the nation in three-point field goal percentage last year. They aren't afraid to shoot it when that's the game plan.

Beyond that, the next test doesn't come until February, when the Red Foxes try to avenge last year's early-season loss to Hartford, a powerful mid-major in its own right. Marist will travel to Hartford this time, and the game is expected to be televised by ESPN.

The Red Foxes will be fielding a very experienced and competitive squad come NCAA tournament time. The reputation they have built over the past two years should earn them an at-large bid if they fail to win the conference tournament and have minimal hiccups on their résumé.

Though mid-majors have made noise in the past, none have done it consistently in the women's game like Marist is poised to do, a true threat both on the court and in the recruiting game, year-in and year-out. No disrespect meant to the Chattanoogas and the Old Dominions of the world.

Marist hasn't knocked off an upper-echelon team such as Connecticut or Tennessee yet, but there is something big happening in Poughkeepsie.

Getcha Cinderella slippers ready. Again.