After navigating through last season and crowing a champion, much of last season’s talent is back, creating yet another opportunity for a chaotic season within Northeast Conference women’s basketball. Even with a unanimous selection on the preseason favorite, there are plenty of teams that have a recipe to dethrone Mount St. Mary’s from the top spot and make a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
As the return of college basketball marches back into town, here’s what it will take for each team within the conference to be the ones cutting down the nets in March.
Mount St. Mary’s
Just by looking at the weapons that the Mount brings back from last season’s championship team, it doesn’t take much for people to be convinced that they can repeat as champions. Even with a change at head coach over the summer, there is plenty of familiarity with associate head coach Antoine White rising to the helm. White says that he is the “luckiest coach alive” by landing his first coaching job at a place that was unanimously chosen to repeat as conference champion.
Like many teams, the Mount returns its nucleus from last season as a result of athletes earning an extra season due to last season’s COVID year. On top of having most of its team back, the Mount has a pair of fifth-year leaders in reigning conference Player of the Year Kendall Bresee and Kayla Agentowicz. Even when those two have their off nights, senior Michaela Harrison has the capability to go out and score 20 on any given night (and she did a pair of times last season). What also makes the Mount dangerous are the complementary players that roll behind the two fifth year players. Sophomores Isabella Hunt and Jessica Tomasetti will continue to progress. Huntis a forward who played behind one of the better bigs in the league last season in Rebecca Lee and will see more minutes with her departure, and Tomassetti will be another threat on the perimeter for the Mount.
The Seahawks made a run to the NEC title game for the first time in 20 seasons before falling just a game short of upending the mighty Mount and reaching the NCAA Tournament. The expectations are much of the same in Staten Island. Wagner also went through a coaching change as Heather Jacobs departed for UMass Boston, and replaced her with assistant Terrell Coburn. If Wagner wants to climb the mountain and take the title, their defense will have to continue to be suffocating opponents. Last season, the Seahawks forced nearly 20 turnovers per game and averaged 17 of their 60 points a night off of turnovers. Coburn alluded to the fact he’s aiming to keep the same philosophy defensively which will be a big factor in terms of how much Wagner lights up the scoreboard on a nightly basis.
Offensively, I don’t think there is a better scorer in the league than Emilija Krista Grava, who finished in the top five in in the conference in scoring last season. She has also said she is looking to expand her shooting to behind the three-point line after a season in which she shot just 20 three-pointers. Finding consistency behind the arc along with her continued volume makes her a candidate to be a top point producer in the conference, if not the leader.
Saint Francis U
Last season, the Red Flash improved upon Keila Whittington’s first year as head coach in Loretto and returned to the top level of the Northeast Conference, finishing third and appearing in the condensed conference tournament. They will, however, have to find a way to replace the scoring of Carson Swogger, who graduated last season after scoring almost 16 points a night. The gap will likely be filled by committee, but the opening presents opportunities for sophomores Kaitlyn Maxwell and Diajah Allen to step into more important roles this season. SFU also returns seniors Lili Benzel, who was one of the top three-point shooters last season, and Jada Dapaa, who was one of the top rebounders in the league. Even when its stars depart, the Red Flash find ways to replace them with ease, making them a contender in the conference once again. Not to mention, Loretto has always been a tough place to play as an opponent.
While it was a just a four-team conference tournament and plenty of outside factors played a role, the Pioneers missing the NEC Tournament for the first time in 20 seasons was a strange sight. The Pioneers missing out on the postseason is something that is consistently brought up by Jessica Mannetti to ensure this season’s team doesn’t fall into the same fate as last year. The Pioneers do bring back a pair of fifth years in Adrianne Hagood and Nikki Johnson. Hagood, now a three-time Preseason All-Conference selection, will have one more opportunity to cap her career with a conference title. While Hagood has battled shoulder troubles throughout her career, her consistency will be a huge indicator on how far Sacred Heart can go.
One thing that the Pioneers found last season was consistent post play, which had been missing from Mannetti’s offense in recent years. The 1-2 punch of Carly Stroemel and Kelsey Wood brings a variety of skill sets down low. While many people within the team believe Stroemel could have been in the running for the league’s Most Improved Player last season had she stayed healthy, that thought remains true for the upcoming season. Sacred Heart’s kryptonite was holding onto the basketball and having stretches where the team struggled offensively. While the Pioneers lost some senior leaders from last season, Sacred Heart should be in the running to host a playoff game once March arrives.
In the first two seasons that Angelika Szumilo has been the head coach, the Knights increased their win total in conference play from five prior to her arrival to nine wins to 12 wins last year. FDU rattled off seven straights wins to close out the 2020-21 regular season, and there’s no reason to doubt that they can take the next leap forward and find themselves back in a conference title game. They bring back All-Conference first-teamer Madison Stanley, who scored in double figures in all but four games last season, but will have to find some scoring options behind her. Szumilo will have to figure those things out as the season goes, but based on her first two seasons in Teaneck, there is little doubt that we will be talking about the Knights making a run in March.
St. Francis Brooklyn
The Terriers have arguably the most decorated roster in all of the conference, featuring former NEC Rookie of the Years, all-conference selections and more. St. Francis Brooklyn is certainly a team that comes in with a lot to prove and plenty of weapons to turn some heads within the conference. The dynamic duo of Nevena Dimitrijevic and Ally Lassen is one of the best pairs in the conference. They also welcome back reigning NEC Rookie of the Year Fruzsina Horvath who will seemingly continue to progress into one of the younger stars in the league. Last season’s 4-10 mark overall before having to cancel its final four games of the season left the team with plenty of motivation as the Terriers enter the season sixth in the preseason poll. If that trio can put things together while adding in experienced players such as Khaleah Edwards, SFBK has what it takes to not only return to the conference tournament, but be in position to host a game or two.
The Bulldogs enter the season as one of the youngest teams in the league, but a lot of those underclassmen saw important minutes for Bryant last season. It does help that Mary Burke brings back her first team selection in Brooke Bjelko, who led the conference in rebounding a season ago, and junior Nicole Gallagher, who looks ready to take the next step after averaging 11 points a night in her sophomore season. While Bryant has one of the best forwards in the league, sharpshooter Alana Perkins will look to maintain her top five standing across the conference in three-point shooting percentage (34%) and made three-pointers per game (2.1).
It’s hard enough to begin your coaching tenure in college basketball by itself, but to have your first season navigating your team through a pandemic is another challenge onto itself. Luckily, Kelly Morrone gets to look past a difficult 2020-21 season in which her team did not have a chance to play a non-conference game before being thrown into the thick of conference play, resulting in a 5-10 finish. With most aspects of a normal college basketball season returning, the Warriors will look for a repeat of their 2019-20 season, where they finished 13-5 in conference play. Merrimack brings back its leading scorer from last season in Mayson Kimball, who returned from an injury filled 2019-20 season and played her way onto the All-NEC second team. Kate Mager remains a threat on the perimeter as she shot 41% from three-point range last season, and Roberts Wesleyan transfer Paige McCormick will bring another interior presence to the team. While Merrimack is still a couple of years away from completing its reclassification process, there’s no reason why the Warriors can’t once again play spoiler across the league.
Year three of the Rene Haynes era presents an interesting dynamic on her roster, having a senior heavy core with newcomers sprinkled into the mix. The Sharks ended last season winning its last four games to boost them to sixth place finish in the conference. LIU’s senior trio of Brandy Thomas, Erykah Russell and Kiara Bell will be the go-to options for Haynes. Thomas brings a scorer’s mentality that gives her the potential to be one of the best bucket-getters across the league. Outside of the trio, some interesting first-year standouts in Emaia O’Brien and Tayra Eke could be players we talk about at season’s end on the All-Rookie team. Through Haynes’ first two seasons at LIU, there has been a clear culture built. Around seasons three and four is when most new coaches begin to see great improvement within their teams and begin to make a push to the top of the league. This could be the beginning of that stretch for the Sharks.
Central Connecticut State
Central Connecticut dealt with some injuries and bad breaks last season which led to a tough 2020-21 season. They did however have the conference’s Most Improved Player in Forever Toppin, who will look to be more of a facilitator for her team this season rather than rely on her scoring. The Blue Devils also bring back Ashley Berube, who had a pair of double-doubles in four games last season before being lost for the season. Outside of that duo, CCSU brings in graduate transfer Eden Nibbelink,who comes to New Britain from Fairfield, where she will get an opportunity to succeed within the Blue Devil system under Kerri Reaves.