After the women’s basketball team clawed its way into the NESCAC playoffs as the eighth seeded squad last February, its chances at underdog glory were quickly extinguished by a Tufts team that went on to win the tournament. This would be the recurring theme of the Cardinals’ season. Half of their 12 losses on the season came from just three teams, Tufts, Amherst and Williams, all of which have made NCAA Division III final four appearances in at least one of the past two seasons. In 2014-15, the Cardinals look to harness their blend of veteran grit and youthful energy to finally break into the NESCAC elite.
Ten Cardinals from the 12-12 2013-14 squad will return to the hardwood this season, lead by Captains Miller Hartsoe ’15 and Jess Cherenza ’15. Hartsoe featured in nearly every game for the Redbirds last season, contributing 2.9 points per game as a consistent rotation player. Cherenza was one of the Cardinals’ most dominant and relentless paint players: the forward led the team in rebounds and was second in minutes played.
Although the Birds’ three leading scorers graduated, the team has plenty of options to attack the rim. Last year’s squad was remarkable for its balanced offense, as seven different players led the team in scoring on different occasions. Forward Kaylie Williams ’16 is the team’s highest-scoring returning player, averaging 8.3 points off a team-high .484 percentage from the field in 2013-14.
Williams did most of her damage as a part of the team’s second unit, coming off the bench to scorch opposing defenses in 14 out of her 24 games played. Now as a veteran player and one of the team’s best scorers and rebounders, Williams will get to test her mettle against some of the best starting fives in Division III through NESCAC play.
Forward Cherkira Lashley ’15 will pair up with Williams in the frontcourt. Lashley, who featured in all 24 games last season, was an inside-out offensive threat for the Redbirds, leading the team in three-point percentage as well as contributing a .388 clip from field-goal range. Also returning is combo guard Dreisen Heath ’15, who added nearly seven points per game from the bench.
Returning with a bevy of proven scorers will be crucial to the team’s success, Cherenza noted.
“This year many of our returning players have gotten big minutes in NESCAC games,” Cherenza wrote in an email to the Argus. “Prior game experience, at the collegiate level, gives our team a huge advantage over the competition by instilling confidence in players.”
If last season’s even scoring distribution is an indication of anything, it’s that the players returning to the squad this season know how to set ego aside and put the team first. Ten of the Cardinals’ 13 players will surely remember close losses to conference foes like Williams, Amherst, and Trinity, and will undoubtedly want to exact their revenge. With so many experienced players hungry for NESCAC victories, Hartsoe is ecstatic at the season’s prospects.
“This year’s team is the most cohesive I’ve been a part of. It feels like we are a big family,” Hartsoe said. “One strength is our fierce competitiveness: we love to compete and that’s what makes us better in every practice. Chemistry is huge. Having 10 returnees who are now a year older and a year more experienced makes everything flow much smoother. And the freshmen have quickly merged in seamlessly and are contributing to our chemistry positively.”
With their balanced roster intact, both captains identify that their biggest challenge this season will be maintaining efficiency on the offensive end. The Cardinals were ranked ninth out of 11 NESCAC teams last year, averaging 58.6 points per game.
“To improve this season’s performance we have been focusing on taking more open, available shots and fine-tuning our defensive sets,” Cherenza wrote. “In order to improve upon last year’s NESCAC record we need to maintain the same intensity, heart and hustle throughout the entire game.”
The team kicks off the season at the Eastern Connecticut State Tip-Off Tournament on Saturday, where it will take on Framingham State University in the first round. If the Redbirds hope to advance to the Sunday championship, Hartsoe believes that establishing control on offense will be imperative.
“This weekend, we have to focus on execution,” Hartsoe said. “It’s imperative that we take care of the ball on offense and run our plays correctly.”
The Cardinals jumped out to a 5-1 start to the season last November. They will need to conjure up similar success this year to build momentum and develop confidence as they gear up for clashes with NESCAC titans like Williams, Amherst and Tufts.
Looking toward the postseason, Hartsoe has set lofty goals for the team.
“One team goal is to earn a home game in the NESCAC playoffs, meaning finishing fourth or higher in the conference for the regular season,” she said. “During my time here I’ve never had a home tournament game, so that would be something special to achieve as a senior.”