NORTON, MA- When five freshmen and a handful of green players occupy your team's 13-woman roster, patience is a virtue. For the upcoming 2009-10 season, Wheaton College women's basketball head coach Melissa Hodgdon's analogy regarding patience might make her team hungry.
"I have approached this season like I'm waiting for a crock pot," said Hodgdon, who has 92 wins entering her seventh season. "We're going to let it sit there and be very patient and get great things out of it. Last year, we had more of a fast food approach, where we could just throw things out there and know great things would happen."
The Lyons posted a 17-11 record last winter, going 9-4 in the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) and coming within four minutes of earning their second straight league tournament crown and NCAA Tournament berth. Up by two points with a little more than 3:30 remaining in the title game against second-seeded Babson College, the number-four Lyons succumbed to the younger Beavers, 51-43. Gone from that Wheaton team is a senior class that included the program's all-time scoring leader and another 1,000-point scorer.
"The good news is the freshmen who have come in are phenomenal; I can't say enough about that," said Hodgdon. "They've come in respectful of our tradition, and they're excited about the opportunity to be a Wheaton student-athlete and part of a successful women's basketball program. They know they have to contribute to that success."
Among the new information the first-year players are absorbing is the philosophy preached not only by Hodgdon and second-year assistant coaches Erica Kovach and Kim McCormack '07 but also the veteran players. "We have a philosophy that you earn your place on the team each day, and it starts in October," said the head coach. "You earn it each day in practice, and those are the people that are going to get the minutes in games."
With the NEWMAC adopting a double-round-robin format for its schedule, breaking from the traditional 13-game ledger to ensure each team has 18 league contests, Hodgdon's charges will have to show their mettle by early December, a full month earlier than the previous start of the NEWMAC slate.
"I'm trying to make them realize they don't have until January to prove they belong in the rotation; they have until December," said the 2008 NEWMAC Coach of the Year, who used a seven-player rotation down the stretch each of the past two seasons but hopes to go 10 deep this winter. "Last year, we got to a point in the season where people hadn't proven their abilities to us, and by then it was too late for them to get mixed into the rotation. If you're not showing up in practice, you can't expect to be thrown on the floor in a game."
The only two players Hodgdon has penciled in as starters are the squad's captains, seniors Andrea Bailey (Needham, MA/Needham) and Jenny Champney (Bedford, MA/Bedford). "They know they have to lead by example in practice, and therefore I know they'll be the leaders on the court in games," said the coach. "We won't be successful if they don't do that, and they know that. Their ultimate goal is to get to another championship game."
Bailey enters her third season as Wheaton's starting point guard after averaging a well-rounded 7.5 points, 5.4 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals last winter. With 332 career helpers, she stands fifth in program history, fewer than 100 from the record. A starting post player the past two years, the versatile Champney will also slide out to small forward on occasion. At 6-1, Champney turned in 11.8 points, 6.1 boards and 1.6 rejections a year ago. The program's career blocks leader is also 111 points shy of becoming the 11th Lyon with 1,000 points.
With three six-footers in the program for the first time since 1999-00, Hodgdon has more size to turn to than in the past, which will allow for a different lineup based on their plan of attack each game. "I'm a big believer in having a consistent starting lineup, but it could change depending upon the opponent this year," said Hodgdon. "Whether we want to go small and fast, or bigger and slower is really going to depend on the opponent."
Senior Ida Kruse (Vershire, VT/Rivendell Academy), a 6-0 forward, is the most veteran returning reserve player and might see time in the starting five this winter. Kruse has had a knack for strong postseason play off the bench, averaging 9.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in the past two NEWMAC Tournament championship games. While playing in every game last winter, making 27 of 28 appearances as a reserve, Kruse contributed 5.0 points and 3.3 rebounds in 16.2 minutes while turning in at least one assist, block or steal in all but four games.
Senior guard Stephanie Walker (Somers, CT/Somers) saw time in 27 games as a reserve last season and might see time as a small forward, while 5-9 classmate Stephanie Michals (Fairfax, VA/Saint Stephen's & Saint Agnes School) will appear at both guard and forward after providing depth in 20 contests in 2008-09. Forward Callie Schneider (Nashua, NH/Bishop Guertin) rounds out the senior class. After an injury-plagued junior year, Schneider will serve as a practice player who might see action this winter.
"With our patient approach, progress will come day by day, and after we take one step up, we're going to take another step up, not a leap - it's going to be one baby step at a time," said the coach. "I want to make sure they're doing things right because that's important for the future, though I know the seniors want it right now."
A 5-11 forward, sophomore Gabbie DePalo (Rumson, NJ/Rumson-Fair Haven Regional) will be looked upon to provide a low-post presence while turning in a strong rebounding effort. As a freshman, DePalo averaged 3.9 points on 60.3 percent shooting with 3.4 rebounds in 12.9 minutes a game, turning in at least five boards 10 times. Sophomore guard Kristina Paolino (Stamford, CT/Trinity Catholic), who looked to emerge as a key player after serving as a reserve behind a veteran group of guards last year, will miss the season due to injury.
Three of the Lyons' five freshmen are guards, with Hodgdon hailing Gabby Barbera (Ridgewood, NJ/Ridgewood) and Hallie Vitagliano (Newton, MA/Newton North) as strong shooters. Barbera could start or come off the bench for the Lyons, while Vitagliano will serve in a back-up capacity.
Freshman Jeana Trimboli (Norwalk, CT/Trinity Catholic), a combo guard who will back Bailey at the point, comes from a long line of basketball players, as her three older brothers all scored 1,000 points in college, two at Division II Southern Connecticut State University and another at Division I University of Vermont. Hodgdon looks for Trimboli to not only provide an offensive spark but also make an immediate impact on the defensive end.
Freshman post player Natasha Colon Ortiz (Holyoke, MA/Holyoke) immediately becomes Wheaton's tallest player at 6-2 while coming off a preseason injury, as Hodgdon counts on her as the Lyons' first true center in five years. Classmate Amanda Fantini (Andover, MA/Suffield Academy) will also see time at the post.
Wheaton's early-season slate includes its opener against Roger Williams University on Tuesday in Emerson Gymnasium and a two-game trek during the first weekend of the season to Johns Hopkins University for the Mike Durgala Memorial Tournament. Its second-round opponent could end up being University of Mary Washington, which is receiving votes in the D3hoops.com preseason national poll.
In a rematch of last year's NEWMAC Tournament title game, the Blue and White visits Babson for its league opener on December 2 before hosting Tufts University five days later, as the Beavers and Jumbos are both receiving national votes in the D3hoops.com poll. The Lyons open the 2010 calendar year with five straight home games before facing Babson again on January 27. The NEWMAC Tournament begins on February 24.
"Our success is going to be based on how we come together as a team," said Hodgdon. "Are we outrebounding as a team, are we better passers as a team, are we getting the best shot as a team, are we a true team like we always talk about? If we can bring all the little good things within everybody together, which is something we didn't necessarily have to do the last two years, then we could be very good this season."