Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — Slowly but surely over the past three seasons, the Niagara University women’s basketball team has crept toward breaking the .500 barrier for the first time since 2004-05.
After bottoming out with a one-win campaign in 2010-11, head coach Kendra Faustin’s Purple Eagles have increased their win totals to 13 and 15, respectively, in each of the past two seasons. They’ve gone 9-9 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference both years, advancing the semifinals of the conference tournament before being bounced by the eight-time repeating champion Marist Red Foxes each time.
Last season’s 15 wins were the most ever in Faustin’s seven years atop the program. This year, she’s installed an up-tempo offense with the hope that taking advantage of her team’s athleticism will push NU to new heights. The Purple Eagles will unveil their new look at 7 p.m. tonight when they host Lehigh in their season opener.
“We’re a different team, so there are a lot of new challenges, but they’re a lot of exciting challenges,” Faustin said. “I’ve got a great group to coach and a lot of wonderful young women that I enjoy being around.”
Gone are mainstays in center Lauren Gatto and guard Kayla Stroman, one of whom has led the team in scoring each of the past three years. Replacing them will be 6-foot-4 junior transfer Donisha Watson (Monroe Community College) and a trio of sophomore guards in Vanessa Neal, Taylor McKay and Sylvia Maxwell.
While it will be difficult to replace Gatto’s and Stroman’s production, Faustin is excited about the potential of their replacements.
“Our sophomore class is (a group of) really talented, athletic guards. Our offense allows them to be creative,” Faustin said. “Watson is pretty athletic and does some things defensively that we’ve never had a player in our program do.
“Putting those pieces together, it fits us to play a more up-tempo style.”
Returning as starters are junior point guard Kelly Van Leeuwen, junior shooting guard Meghan McGuinness and senior guard Chanel Johnson. Faustin said she wasn’t sure who would fill out the starting lineup in tonight’s opener.
Adding size to the frontcourt will be junior forwards Gabby Baldasare (6-foot-1) and Val McQuade (6-foot), sophomore center Sam Lapszynski (6-foot-3) and freshman forward Victoria Rampado (6-foot-2). Rampado leads a freshman class that also includes guards Emily Granruth and Tiffany Corselli.
Faustin hopes that increasing the tempo will help her talented guards find the bottom of the basket.
“We need to do a better job scoring the basketball, which is a big reason for the change in our offense,” she said.
She added that she expects McGuinness — who was second on the team in scoring last season — to help make up for the offensive losses of Gatto and Strohman.
“With a presence inside like (Watson) and a shooter outside like (McGuinness), it gives us some really good options,” she said.
“We have a lot of people that can share (the scoring load) on any given night,” added McGuinness.
The new look has the players excited for the team’s potential this year. McGuinness and Faustin both raved about Watson and the incoming freshmen, as well as the talent of the sophomore class.
“We’ve had to do a lot of teaching, but I think everyone is coming together pretty well,” McGuinness said. “All the guards like the faster pace, (Watson) has been very strong and the freshmen are adjusting really well. I think all of them can help us.”
If the team is to improve on the last two seasons, it’d do well to win tonight against the Mountain Hawks, who beat the Purple Eagles last season.
“They always play really hard and their post players are really talented,” Faustin said. “(Sophomore forward Kerry Kinik) won Rookie of the Year in their league, and she’s phenomenal. It’ll be a tough matchup for us.”
Follow Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.