Women’s basketball season preview: Lady Royals aim to sustain success with several missing pieces from last year

Photo courtesy of Scranton Athletics.
THE LADY Royals aim for success as they prepare to face King’s College in their season opener 6 p.m. Friday at Wilkes University.

LUKE KROPP
Assistant Sports Editor

Head Coach: Trevor Woodruff (third season, 56-5)

2016-17 Record: 26-4 overall, 11-3 conference

2016-17 Finish: Landmark Conference Champions, NCAA Sweet 16

Graduated: Sarah Payonk, Alexix Roman, Denise Rizzo

First Game: King’s College, Friday at 6 p.m.

The Players

Trevor Woodruff inherited a talent-loaded roster when he took the Scranton women’s basketball head coaching job in 2015.

Brilliant players like Division III All-Americans Alexix Roman and Sarah Payonk led the Lady Royals to 30 straight wins that season and a 26-4 record last year, winning both Landmark Conference championships and five NCAA Tournament games.

With Roman, Payonk and dependable sixth woman Denise Rizzo all graduated from last year’s team, Woodruff has some big holes to fill in the post.

“We’re not going to replace them with any one person,” Woodruff said. “Hopefully style of play can help us fill in some of the numbers they gave us, but it’s going to have to be a group of individuals.”

Roman and Payonk combined for 834 points and 526 rebounds during the 2016-17 season.

“We used to pencil Roman in for 18 points a night,” Woodruff said. “Now it’s going to be between three different people to get us 18 points.”

That is why junior Bridgette Mann has a big challenge ahead of her. The second-team All-Landmark guard was second only to Roman in scoring last season with 408 points, and she will almost certainly be the most important cog in the machine in 2017-18.

Mann started all 61 games of her career, dishing out 213 rebounds and compiling 58 steals. Barring no injuries, she will most likely score her 1000th point later this season and climb higher on the all-time 3-point-shots-made rankings (currently 8th with 109).

“She’s going to have to do even more,” Woodruff said of the 5-foot-6 guard. “She’s benefited as much as anybody from having (Roman) and (Payonk) around because those two occupied the majority of the defensive responsibility from other teams. Now she’ll get the bulk of the attention from opposing defenses, which will make her life more difficult. But, even still, we’re going to need her to probably increase her scoring output and increase her playmaking ability if we’re going to have a successful season.”

Mann worked on her speed and agility during the offseason, and she hopes to get the ball out of her hands much quicker.

Filling a hole from last year and looking to take the pressure off Mann is senior Katie Feehery.

The 6-foot-2 forward never had the chance to start in her three-year career, battling injuries and playing behind Roman and Payonk. But the 53 times she came off the bench, Feehery showed flashes of potential.

“She’s the starter until somebody beats her out,” Woodruff said of the senior captain. “She has the potential. There’s some things she can do very well. She shoots the 15-foot jump shot very well. She’s an excellent shot blocker defensively.”

With Mann running point guard and Feehery in the post, Scranton’s other senior captain Katie Broderick will most likely run the two.

Broderick played all 30 games last season, making 18 starts at guard and earning the Most Valuable Player award for the Landmark championship. The 5-foot-9 senior drilled 21 3-point shots, pulled down 58 rebounds and produced 23 steals last year.

The most interesting story out of the group of sophomores comes from Julia Gantz, who is a junior academically but gained an extra year of eligibility after nursing an injury the entire 2016-17 season.

As a freshman at Division II Bloomsburg University, the 5-foot-10 guard started 18 of games, averaging 5.8 points and 2.5 rebounds per game on her way to becoming the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) East Freshman of the Year.

The younger sister of 2016 alumna and former Lady Royal Jaclyn Gantz, Julia Gantz looks to be a big part of Scranton’s success this season after rehabbing a torn ACL for well over a year.

Guards Makenzie Mason, Emily Sheehan, Lily Warhaftig and forward Sofia Recupero round out a sophomore class that will see plenty of playing time.

Sheehan, who led Dunmore High School to three state champions, also battled injuries last season but returned to finish strong. The 5-foot-6 guard started the first 11 games last season, including a 22-point performance in just her second game.

“She’s back, she’s healthy, she’s a strong, physical, athletic kid,” Woodruff said of Sheehan. “I’ve seen her improve her offensive skills and her comfort level defensively, which is her strength.”

However much time Mann spends on the bench, which won’t be much, Warhaftig is expected to lock down most of those extra point guard minutes.

“Last year she was playing really good basketball, maybe as good as any guard we had,” Woodruff said of the 5-foot-7 sophomore. “We’re excited to see her involved and see if she can take the next step.”

The 5-foot-11 guard-forward-hybrid Mason and 6-foot-2 center Recupero also step into increased roles after only appearing in games off the bench last season.

The Lady Royals have a solid top eight, most of whom are sophomores expecting an increased workload. The program also welcomes six freshmen who will have a sufficient amount of time to develop the next few years.

Guards Josie Barrett, Cassandra Cruz, Ava Gammo, Taylor Rodriguez and forwards Chloe Burns and Kate Howard round out a roster that looks much different from last season, but the expectation to succeed is still present.

The Competition

From the outside looking in, this may be prime time to prevent the Lady Royals from three-peating in the Landmark Conference.

In the national polls, Scranton is the highest ranked Landmark team by D3hoops.com (No. 19) and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (No. 13). But in the Landmark Conference coaches’ preseason poll released Tuesday, Scranton is ranked third behind Catholic University and Moravian College, who are tied for first.

In-conference coaches may have been able to see the changing landscape of Scranton’s roster that national voters did not notice.

While Scranton basketball typically deserves to be nationally recognized, Moravian seems underrated as it returns 13 players from last year’s 20-8 squad.

“(Moravian) gave us a tough game in the conference semifinals, so I think they’re probably on paper the best team in the league,” Woodruff said.

Following Moravian, Catholic and Scranton in the Landmark poll in order are Elizabethtown College, Juniata College, Drew University, Susquehanna University and Goucher College.

The Lady Royals open conference play at Juniata on Dec. 2 and play four out of five February games at home to finish the regular season.

The non-conference schedule is a whole other challenge, and the first game of the season is a key matchup. Scranton travels to Wilkes-Barre to take on former Lady Royal Mackenzie Yori and the King’s College Monarchs on Friday as part of the Cross-County Challenge.

“The thing that concerns me about King’s first is that our weaknesses and concerns for us are strengths for them,” Woodruff said. “I’m worried because we’re not as big and we’re inexperienced. Well, they are big and they have experience.”

This season opener will set the tone for the rest of the year and show what style of play this Lady Royals team will run. The University will also host the Scranton Hilton Poinsettia Classic on Dec. 15-16 that will showcase interesting matchups against Hartwick College and the winner of Messiah College and Fairleigh Dickinson University-Florham.

This season provides a chance to prove that a group can achieve greatness despite inexperience.

“We’re going to give everything we have, 110 percent every game, but we’re also going to focus one game at a time,” Mann said. “I think the best thing that we can do as a team is to just stick with each other and just be willing to put in the work and put in the time.”

 

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