This was a very telling weekend for the Marist Women's basketball team, and Poughkeepsie's finest not only flourished, but also eased many fears surrounding this year's team.
Following up last year's 32-3 mark is a very tough task, but improving upon it has actually come to be an expectation. Since head coach Brian Giorgis took over in 2002, the team's record has gotten better each year.
For those of you who still don't know this team, they shocked the nation in 2007, taking out nationally ranked Ohio State and Middle Tennessee State in the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the first Sweet 16 for any Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference team.
Nobody matches up with Candace Parker, so please forgive Marist for losing to the eventual National Champion.
The Red Foxes followed up that performance by going undefeated in the MAAC in 2008 and reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to LSU.
Marist lost its core players in point guard Nikki Flores and forwards Sarah Smrdel and Meg Dahlman. Though confident, there were many question marks heading into this season. They were answered last night.
After a riveting ring ceremony Saturday, featuring speakers from the past four MAAC championship teams, the Red Foxes opened up their season at home last night against Albany, winning 74-56.
Though Albany isn't the toughest of tests (see: Nov. 26 at Oklahoma), it was a great chance for Giorgis to get everyone on the floor to see what he's got this year.
The starting five is solid. That's the bottom line.
Rachele Fitz (defending MAAC Player of the Year, preseason second team All-America), only a junior, was victim to a triple-team most of the night and still poured in 23 points.
Senior Julianne Viani was quiet for about 10 minutes while Marist was feeling out its inside game. Late in the first half, and throughout the second half, she came to life, dropping three-pointer after three-pointer. She finished with a career-high 26 points and made 5-7 from long range (10-13 overall from the field).
Elise Caron could be the best defensive player this league has ever seen. She was a role player last year as a freshman, but now she's front and center as the starting point guard. Caron drew four charges last night without committing a blocking foul. She backs down to nobody. She'll make noise when put on a national stage.
Erica Allenspach, also a sophomore, is great at handling and distributing the ball, and she can hit a shot when she's needed. She runs after every loose ball and takes a beating when she drives into the lane to free up Viani or Fitz.
Maria Laterza had a breakout performance last night under the rim. A sophomore, she barely played last year, so nobody knew what to expect. She grabbed three offensive rebounds, blocked two shots, and scored eight points before Marist even had 20 total points.
Laterza, who stands 6'3", could be the most important role player to this team, because she's filling the shoes of 6'3" Dahlman and Smrdel, who were forces in the paint. Teams love to double- and triple-team 6'1" Fitz, so when they have to pay attention to the other big players, that frees up Fitz to take advantage of mismatches.
As for the bench, the freshmen looked promising, while other returning players looked to shake off some early-season rust.
Lynzee Johnson, last year's conference Sixth Player of the Year, had a quiet night. When she usually comes in, it's to knock down a three. She'll get open on the wing, and the rest is history.
Her shot was off last night, but I fully expect her to pick up exactly where she left off last season.
Senior Courtney Kolesar missed all of last year with a knee injury, so it's great to see her back on the court. When her shot is on, she doesn't miss. Albany was very fast and athletic last night, so they kept her at bay. Like Johnson, Kolesar will be great off the bench when Caron or Allenspach need a rest.
As for the freshmen, Brandy Gang looked great last night in her first college game. She'll be playing inside with Fitz and Laterza. Her intensity was up, and she had a great performance in minimal playing time, contributing two points, two blocks, and a rebound in 13 minutes.
Corielle Yarde has one of the sweetest releases on the team. She's quick, so if Allenspach or Caron are at a speed disadvantage, Yarde is a super-sub.
The team was without junior Brittany Engle due to illness, so that adds another element to the Red Foxes' depth once she gets back.
The clean-up crew wasn't effective when put in the game early in the second half last night, so Viani and Fitz had to come back in when the lead was cut from 20 to single digits.
Expect Giorgis to work out those kinks and for these women to be a brute force for each opponent.
Marist is on the road for four games—at Northeastern and Harvard, then at Oklahoma and Tulsa. Winning three of four is expected, and pulling off an upset of Courtney Paris and company would get the pundits stirring early this year.
The Red Foxes should be sneaking back into the national rankings within the next two weeks, barring any hiccups or an absolute blowout by Oklahoma.