Coming off a 10-15 campaign with a roster comprised of seven freshmen, two transfers and five returners, the Wheaton College women's basketball team is poised to make a run at the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) crown in 2011-12. With all five starters returning as well as a deep, experienced bench and a pair of talented freshmen, head coach Melissa L. Hodgdon is anxious to start the season.
Last season, more than half of our team was comprised of new players," explained Hodgdon. "While our record didn't reflect it, we had a great season. We were building. The wins and losses both on and off the court were huge. Our kids grew and matured both in the classroom and on the court, and I kept reminding myself of Al McGuire's quote 'The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.' We really developed our identity last year, and heading into this season, everyone knows their role and believes in our system. We all put in so much work last season knowing we'd reap the benefits this season. It was very exciting to get into the gym October 15th."
The Lyons strength lies in the backcourt, where junior Jeana Trimboli (Norwalk, Conn./Trinity Catholic) and sophomore Laura Pierce (Hampstead, N.H./Pinkerton Academy) comprise one of the best guard combos in the conference. Trimboli averaged a team-high 13.4 ppg last season and also led the team in steals (32). She knocked down 55 three-point field goals – the third-best single-season mark in program history – and reached double-figures in scoring in 17 contests.
Pierce, meanwhile, started all 25 games as a freshman at point guard and averaged 4.4 assists per game. She recorded at least five assists in 11 games and was voted a captain this season. "Being voted a captain as a sophomore is huge," said Hodgdon.
Junior Gabby Barbera (Ridgewood, N.J./Ridgewood) started 21 of the 25 games she appeared in as a guard last season and averaged 5.7 ppg. She finished second on the team with 41 three-point field goals and led all guards in rebounding (3.2 rpg).
Senior Nicole Cullinane (Rindge, N.H./New Hampton School) is a transfer from Keene State who played in 24 games last season (two starts) and averaged 4.1 ppg. "Nicole Cullinane was kind of a sixth man for us last year. She'll play the one or the two this year," said Hodgdon.
Sophomore Melissa McLaughlin (Spindale, N.C./R-S Central) appeared in 24 games (three starts) as a freshman and averaged 2.3 ppg, shooting .333 (9-for-27) from behind the arc. Junior Hallie Vitagliano (Newton, Mass./Newton North) and senior Kristina Paolino (Stamford, Conn./Trinity Catholic) appeared in 17 and 11 games last season, respectively, and provide depth in the backcourt.
"Kristina Paolino missed the better part of two seasons with injuries, and she's really the glue that holds our bench together," said Hodgdon. "She hasn't had a lot of playing time, but she does the little things off the court. Hallie has been a big surprise for us. She didn't get a lot of minutes in previous years, but she worked on getting stronger this summer, which has made her better. She's been better able to compete with players who are more athletic than her. She's shown us that she is more than just a shooter."
One player who has impressed coach Hodgdon in camp is freshman McKenzie Kuhn (Glenwood Springs, Colo./Glenwood Springs). 'Kenzie' was a three-time all-conference selection at Glenwood Springs High School who helped the Demons with three-straight Western Slope League Championships. As a senior, Kuhn was named conference player of the year. "Kenzie is a leader on and off the court," said Hodgdon. "She is the epitome of what a student-athlete should be. She has a great eye for the game and is a sponge. I will lean on her at the one, two, and three spots."
Senior captain Gabbie DePalo (Rumson, N.J./Rumson-Fair Haven Regional) was a Second Team All-NEWMAC selection last season after averaging 10.7 ppg and a team-high 8.0 rpg. She collected five double-doubles and will be relied upon to help carry the offense this season.
"A lot of teams will focus on Gabbie," said Hodgdon. "She had a phenomenal junior year and is the soul of our team. She has matured quite a bit and I am very proud of her. She works really hard and is a great fit for our system. I'm looking for her to have another outstanding season."
Joining DePaolo in the frontcourt is junior Natasha Colon Ortiz (Holyoke, Mass./Holyoke), a 6-2 forward who averaged 6.5 ppg and 5.9 rpg in 25 games last season (23 starts).
Junior Jana Jagodzinski (Old Greenwich, Conn./Greenwich) played in all 25 games last season (four starts) and averaged 4.6 ppg and 2.6 rpg. Sophomore Lauren McClelland (Scituate, Mass./Notre Dame) played in 24 games in 2010-11 and went for 2.1 ppg and 2.2 rpg.
"Jana and Lauren have both come back very much improved," said Hodgdon. "Jana transferred from Drew University and had to make some adjustments, but she is a very passionate kid who picked things up well. She just needed to relax and have confidence in herself. Lauren has gained a lot of strength and worked on her post moves, including facing the basket. The key for her was to get stronger this off-season, and she did. Those two will help immediately in the front court."
Sophomore Sarah Fitzgerald (Bath, Maine/Bath) returns after appearing in 24 games (one start) for the Lyons as a freshman, as well as classmate Dana Zahoruiko (Amesbury, Mass./Amesbury), who played in 10 contests in 2010-11.
Wheaton's other freshman is Abbie Brickley (Sandy, Utah/Skyline), a four-year letterwinner from Skyline High School who helped it capture three regional championships. A second team all-state selection, Brickley will help solidify the Lyons frontcourt for years to come.
"Brickley is great. She gives us an inside presence and some versatility," said Hodgdon. "She can face the basket as well as play with her back to it. She has moves right and left, and is a pretty seasoned post for what we normally get at this level. She's been taught very well by her high school coaches, one of which is an Olympic gold medal winner from UCLA. She's been taught a lot, yet she still picks up things. She's learned a lot from Gabbie DePalo."
The Lyons open the season with a home contest against Roger Williams University on Tuesday, Nov. 15 at Emerson Gymnasium. Four days later, they host the Wheaton Invitational with Lasell College, Drew University, and Haverford College.
"Drew is a phenomenal program who will be exceptionally strong. Haverford has some big freshmen and will be very competitive. Lasell has a second-year coach from Bates who is super-competitive and will have that team much improved from last year. It'll be a great environment for women's basketball. We make it all about community and women's basketball, and we expect a big crowd like we've had in years past."
The Lyons follow with four of their next five games against NEWMAC foes (Coast Guard, Smith, WPI, Babson). "Only six of the 10 teams in our conference go to the tournament, so if we're not prepared to play those games, we will put ourselves in an early hole," explained Hodgdon. "That's why we have to be prepared to play those games, so we're not under pressure the rest of the way."
Wheaton also travels to Puerto Rico in December for games with Elizabethtown and University of the Sacred Heart (Puerto Rico) on Dec. 20-21.