BY JONAH BRONSTEIN
Niagara Gazette — Whenever Kendra Faustin noticed her players trudging through preseason practices and conditioning sessions, she only need to say one thing:
The Niagara women’s basketball team got stronger as the season went on last winter, evidenced most in a pair of losses to six-time Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Marist in which they wilted at the very end. The Purple Eagles lost in double overtime at home against the Red Foxes on the final weekend of the regular season, then again in the MAAC tournament semifinals. In the latter loss, they were outscored 16-2 during the extra period.
“We make reference to overtime a lot, and everybody knows what it means,” Faustin said. “We don’t need to say anything about the MAAC tournament. We just know that when we are exhausted and it really matters, we’re going to get through it by focusing on the things that got us there.”
The Purple Eagles, who only lost one key contributor (Ali Morris) from last year’s team have been picked to finish second in the MAAC this year, behind Marist. It’s the highest the team has ever placed in the preseason coaches poll.
“We’ve talked about as a group that a preseason picking doesn’t mean very much,” junior center Lauren Gatto said. “We have to come out there and prove what we are about, what we do and how we do it.
“We were really happy with the way we finished last year, even if it didn’t turn out exactly the way we would’ve liked in the tournament. But we want to make sure we build off that and not get complacent, keep pushing.”
Faustin has been able to use the lofty expectations as a motivational tool, as well.
“If we’re having a bad practice, I’ll say, ‘All of the sudden we don’t think we have to practice hard because people think we’re finishing second?’”
Though they have just one senior, Jessica Flamm, the Purple Eagles are a maturing group that doesn’t have bad practices nearly as often as they have in the first five seasons under Faustin.
Point guard Kayla Stroman, the preseason MAAC player of the year, would be a senior this year if not for the knee injury that sideline her two seasons ago. Gatto, a second-team preseason all-MAAC pick, is entering her fourth-year of college basketball after transferring from Illinois-Chicago in 2010.
“Our leadership is much better this year,” Faustin said. “Our group has really gelled.”
The Purple Eagles will likely go into the MAAC tournament without their main leader. Faustin is due to give birth to her second child Feb. 27. Niagara began last season with Faustin on maternity leave and assistant Corrine Jones acting as the interim coach, and Faustin is confident the team can win without her this year.
“The timing is better for the team, I think, if not for me personally,” Faustin said. “At the end of the year, you’re not really doing as much coaching. You’re in the performing stage, and hopefully as a coach, you’re getting out of the way.
“If we get to the end of the year and Kayla and Lauren can’t handle our team, we’ve done a very poor job coaching.”NU WOMEN'S BASKETBALL ROSTER No. Name Yr. Pos. Ht. 1 Meghan McGuinness So. G 5-10 5 Chanel Johnson Jr. G 5-10 10 Kelly Van Leeuwen So. G 5-9 11 Vanessa Neal Fr. G 5-7 12 Taylor McKay Fr. G 5-10 15 Kayla Stroman Jr. G 5-5 20 Jess Flamm Sr. F 5-11 22 Shy Britton Jr. F 5-11 23 Gabby Baldasare So. F 6-1 24 Sylvia Maxwell Fr. G 5-7 30 Lauren Gatto Jr. C 6-2 33 Val McQuade So. F 6-0 42 Sam Lapszynski Fr. C 6-3