November 14, 2008

After landmark year, women’s hoops strong as ever

After traveling to the Sweet 16 and picking up their first-ever outright conference championship and postseason wins last winter, women’s basketball enters this year hoping to repeat the feat.

Despite last year’s accomplishments and an 11th-place preseason ranking, head coach Aaron Roussell is putting his focus on the short term.

“Our goal, as it always has been, is to simply win our next game,” Roussell said. “Down the road I know our kids want to make another run in the tournament, but if we start thinking about that we will get way too far ahead of ourselves. If we focus on getting better each day and on our next opponent we will be in good position at the end of the year.”

To enjoy the same degree of success as last year, the Maroons must replace a stellar graduating class that included forward Nicaya Rapier and guards Lori Tanaka and Nofi Mojidi, a trio of starters who joined a team with a losing record and helped make it the playoff contender it is today. Second on the squad in scoring last winter, All-UAA second team selection Mojidi started all but two games for the Maroons and led Chicago into the Sweet 16 with 17 points against St. Norbert in what would be the squad’s final win of the season. Roussell hopes to make up for their loss with a recruiting class that is large in both size and stature.

“Obviously losing last year’s senior class forces us to make adjustments,” Roussell said. “Their athleticism, work ethic, and leadership are all things that we have to make up for and find on the current roster. The players we are looking to replace them with, though, will give us a bit more size and hopefully we can use that to our advantage on defense and around the basket on both ends of the floor.”

Among Roussell’s eight recruits, four break the five-eleven mark, including six-two forward Taylor Simpson and six-foot guard Sarah Herlihy. These rookies join an already accomplished group of returning players.

“We have a lot of experience back, and many of these kids saw significant minutes in big games last year,” Roussell said. “We were a good defensive team and very good rebounding team last year, and most of our success was due largely to these two strengths. We will need to excel in both of those areas again, especially early in the season.”

Chicago has the roster in place to continue playing to these strengths. Returning starters include defensive specialists like third-year forward Molly Hackney, while the height of the recruiting class should bolster the Maroons’ success in the rebound department.

An All-UAA first-team selection, Hackney embodied Chicago’s strengths on both sides of the court, leading the team in scoring and rebounds and pacing the conference in blocks last season. Her classmate, point guard Jamie Stinson, returns a wealth of experience as the only Maroon to start each game last year, leading the team in both minutes played and assists.

To fill the leadership roles vacated by graduating seniors, Chicago will look to its only senior, guard Alex Leach. The fourth-year was an All-UAA honorable mention last year, and Roussell considers her one of his strongest players.

“Molly Hackney was a first-team All-UAA player and is a special talent,” said Roussell. “Alex Leach is our only senior and one of the best all-around players in the league. Neither probably gets the credit she deserves, but that just puts them in the same boat as a lot of our players. Last year we were the epitome of team success, and I see the same potential from this year’s roster, and I would not want it any other way.”

Looking to start the season off on the right foot at this weekend’s Midway Classic, the Maroons could face some early trouble because of preseason injury. Second-year guard Dana Kaplan is unlikely to play due to an ankle injury sustained in practice, and other players have missed practice time because of health problems.

Chicago will need to continue its three-year Midway Classic winning streak and get all the other early wins it can get in order to prep for a grueling schedule. The Maroons take on 10th-ranked Illinois Wesleyan in mid-December and then have to contend with two games each against fifth-ranked Rochester and sixth-ranked Wash U when conference play begins.