By Jason Tierinni/Sports Information Staff
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- Last year, an off-court incident led to the dismissal of three starting players, leaving the Eastern Connecticut State University women's basketball team with nine players who had never played a college game prior to the season. Complicating matters, Eastern's only remaining experienced player went down with a season-ending knee injury with nine games left in the season.
At left: Head coach Denise Bierly with senior co-captains Jaymie Sommers (far left) and Samantha Riccio.
But even though last year may have not looked successful to an outsider, it was a rewarding one for head coach Denise Bierly, her staff, and her players. "I learned about the kids on the team, about their character, about them fighting through adversity and about them as individuals," says Bierly, who had entered the year off a 21-win season that resulted in an NCAA Division III Tournament berth.
Now in her 19th season, Bierly has won 344 games and has compiled a .691 winning percentage. The second game of this weekend's Eastern Tip-Off Tournament will be her 500th at Eastern and her seventh conference victory will be her 200th.
At right: Samantha Riccio
Like last year, this year's team remains inexperienced with ten of 16 players new to the program, but the wealth of experience realized by forward Shannon McCourt (New Fairfield) and guards Kristina Forsman (Newington) and Taylor McBride (Willimantic) as freshmen last season should pay dividends over the next three years. McCourt and Forsman landed on last year's Little East Conference All-Rookie Team and McBride was named to the All-Defensive Team.
Eight of this year's players are freshmen and five are sophomores. The two seniors - who will serve as captains - are four-year player Samantha Riccio (Avon) and second-year player Jaymie Sommers (Voluntown). Riccio missed the final weeks of last year with the knee injury; Sommers volunteered to join the team to help fill out the roster, and ended up starting all 17 games in which she appeared as a hard-working and important 5-foot-9 post player.
The sixth returning player is sophomore Rabia Rawji (Danbury).
With only one fourth-year player in Riccio, Bierly knows having a younger team means it may be a little more challenging to score points. So in order to be successful this year Bierly mentions her team will have to "buy in and commit to playing on the defensive side of the floor. We will also have to buy in to rebounding. If we do those two things I think all the games we play will be competitive."
At left: Jaymie Sommers
Expectations for this year's team haven't been made by Bierly because if you do, she says, "you may be boxing yourself in and what if this team can go beyond their expectations?"
Eastern's first focus, according to Bierly, is to win the Eastern Tip-Off Tournament, which gets underway Saturday with the Warriors facing Simmons College at 5:30 p.m. at Francis E. Giessler Gymnasium.
With a full, relatively experience roster last year, the Warriors won their second straight tip-off championship, and kicked off the month of December two weeks later by routing perennial conference champion and NCAA qualifier University of Southern Maine in their LEC opener at Geissler Gym.
Eastern emerged from a grueling first semester of play with a 4-4 record, but won only four games the rest of the way after being decimated by the dismissal of three starting players.
Having witnessed a gritty season-long effort by last year's undermanned and undersized team, Bierly says of this year's squad, "I have a lot of kids with a lot of heart and I think they are going to be up for the challenge this season."
"I really just want this team to just play basketball." I don't want them to worry about the scoreboard or the team's record because if you are playing Eastern level basketball the wins will take care of themselves. That's what we try and get them to focus on to help them get better every day."
At right: Kristina Forsman
For an outsider looking in there is no telling how hard last season truly was on the team and coaching staff but Bierly explains, "This year the coaching staff and the girls on the team are working very hard to get the wins and get this program back on track."
This upcoming season for the Eastern women's basketball team should be a very exciting one in hopes of reclaiming prominence in the Little East Conference and if this team wants to do so they just have to believe. The second-most successful program in the 26-year history of the conference, Eastern is picked to finish fifth in the pre-season coaches' poll - a position reflected by last year's 4-10 LEC record.
Never did the team get down during the season when they weren't winning games. Knowing they had to scrap and claw to get every victory Eastern fought on. "The practices the team had during the year even with a small, inexperienced team were still consistent and upbeat," says Bierly.
At the end of last season, Eastern traveled to Keene State College knowing if they won their last two regular season games they could make the LEC tournament. That game, the young squad played with desire. They won the game against a Keene team which started five seniors. Bierly said that it was "our biggest win of the season. For that young group to go up there and get that win was just amazing."
The next Saturday, Eastern played Massachusetts Boston but lost, crushing its hopes of making the Little East Conference tournament. Winning two of its last three games last season against teams which had soundly beaten the Warriors the first time around helped keep the team motivated and positive moving into the off-season.
In any season positive things do happen and last year Eastern had a bunch. Many of the young players on the team got time in games that they normally would not have seen for at least a year or two. Three freshmen averaged over 27 minutes a game. Sommers was asked to play when the team was low on numbers and "totally exceeded what I thought she'd contribute," said Bierly. During the last eight weeks of the season Sommers came in adding height to a very small team and played 35 minutes a game after not having played competitive basketball since high school.
"She's a special kid. She's improved her game and she wants to get better," Bierly exclaimed. Now a senior, Sommers has a full season with the team to show everyone what she's got. Even though a big freshman class was brought in, Bierly says, "She's not afraid of it and up for the challenge."
Bierly expects many of the incoming class to contribute immediately, among them redshirt sophomore Lauren Halla (Whateley, MA) and freshmen Jill Ritrosky (Pittsfield, MA), Megan Cardarelli (Manchester), Brianna Leonard (Amherst, MA), Victoria Pfohl (Trumbull), and three-point specialist Avi Morrison (Hampton, NH). Halla sat out all of last year with a pre-season injury.
At 6-foot-2 inches tall, first-year junior Rhea Gorham (Norwalk) may play a key role as the season progresses, as could freshmen Erin Brooks (Billerica,MA), Sarah Denihan (East Hampton) and Gabriella Farrell (Stoneham, MA).