2013-14 Rider University Women’s Basketball Outlook
"Building the Puzzle Piece by Piece"
The picture is clear on the box and looks awesome. The anticipation and excitement of the finished product. And you want it now. Then you rip the box open and all of the interlocking pieces stare back at you in a big pile, each piece looking similarly like the others.
And now, the task is at hand, successfully putting together all of the pieces to the puzzle.
The return of nine letterwinners. The comeback of a graduate student with two seasons lost due to a knee injury. A transfer eligible after sitting out last season. Two newcomers. And another transfer who will be in the mix in 2014-15.
All the pieces to the puzzle.
The 2013-14 season, under seventh year head coach Lynn Milligan, will be spent putting together all the pieces to the puzzle that will ultimately lead to Springfield, Massachusetts and a shot at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship.
“We’re very excited about this season; it is going to be a great year,” said Milligan, who led Rider to its most successful campaign since the 1994-95 season with 15 wins in 2012-13. “We have a lot to look forward to, a lot of hard work, but this group isn’t afraid of hard work or afraid to get in the gym or meet expectations. We’re looking forward to a good, fun, healthy season.”
Rider is coming off a season that saw the fifth most wins in the 74-years of the program and the Broncs tied their most successful MAAC campaign with 10 victories.
Leading the returnees is senior co-captain MyNeshia McKenzie (Springfield, Pa./Springfield (Delco)) who became Rider’s first All-MAAC First Team honoree and was named Second Team All-MET by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association.
“MyNeshia is on her last chapter,” said Milligan. “It is going to be exciting for her. If she plays the way she is capable of and continues to progress and improve as much as she has her first three seasons, then her senior season will be special. MyNeshia has worked very hard and has become a leader on this team. She is a player who can do a lot of different things for us. She is ready to carry us a little and lead some of the younger kids. It is a natural progression for her. She will leave as one of the best players here, but there is a lot left unwritten, so I am excited to see what the season brings for her.”
McKenzie is the first All-MET honoree since Bronc Hall of Famer Jessica Beck, who scored over 1,000 points and had over 1,000 rebounds in her stellar Rider career.
A Third Team selection as a sophomore and a MAAC All-Rookie honoree as a freshman, McKenzie was second in the MAAC in rebounding (9.8) and fourth in scoring (14.2), earning Rider team Most Valuable Player honors as a junior. McKenzie started 29 of 30 games and led the Broncs in scoring, rebounds, steals (58), assists (50) and minutes (34.7).
McKenzie enters her senior season needing five points to become the 19th 1,000 point scorer at Rider. She is currently fifth all time on Rider’s career rebound list.
Senior guard Alicia Hall (Silver Spring, Md./John F. Kennedy) is a 60-game veteran who is averaging almost 12 minutes a game off the bench.
“Alicia has had a great career so far and she wants to play more minutes,” Milligan said. “She has worked very hard this spring and I think there is going to be a role for her coming off the bench and being a defensive stopper and being able to score off screens. We’re looking for Alicia to finish her year very strong.”
Also returning to the Bronc squad is graduate-student, guard Shereen Lightbourne (Elmsford, N.Y./Alexander Hamilton) who is a 57-game veteran but missed all of the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons with a knee injury. When healthy, Lightbourne averaged over 21 minutes per game and was the team Most Valuable Player in 2009-10.
“Shereen’s presence alone is a right piece for us,” Milligan said. “Watching her go through what she has and knowing how hard she has worked and persevered is something that is going to rub off on the younger players as they understand what it takes to play at this level. The love and passion you have to have for this game, coming off of her third ACL surgery and wanting to still play. Shereen wants nothing more than to put that uniform on. She has had a terrific summer and she is healthy, 100 percent. She is doing a great job, and we are seeing where she can pick up based on her sophomore season when she was our team MVP. Her teammates are thrilled for her. They want her out there and to succeed and to do the things she wants to do and she is on the path to do that.”
Returning juniors include 5-10 guard, co-captain Emily Fazzini, 6-3 center Marritta Gillcrease, 5-8 guard Kornelija Valiuskyte and guard Lashay Banks who sat out last season after transferring from Cincinnati.
Fazzini, from Wayne, Pennsylvania (Archbishop Carroll), played in the last 26 games in 2012-13 after missing the first four contests with an ankle injury. She was second on the team in three-point field goal percentage (.311), third in three-pointers made (1.2) and fourth in scoring (6.4), field goals made (2.2), steals (1.1) and free throw percentage (.800).
“Emily’s progression after her ankle surgery has been terrific,” Milligan said. “Obviously she wasn’t at 100 percent last year until the New Year, around January or February. She worked as hard as she could in order to get back to her starting spot. I am expecting a big year out of her; this is a year where she is pretty determined. I think we’re going to see the best we’ve seen of Emily this season.”
Gillcrease, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Perry Traditional), appeared in 25 games as a sophomore, all off the bench and was third on the team in blocks.
“Marritta is a junior who is ready to take her turn,” Milligan said. “She played solid minutes behind Caitlin (Bopp) the past few years and there is a spot for her to come in and have a presence. She is going to have a good roll for us in regards to rebounding and screening. She is one of our veterans, a leader on this team, so we’re expecting her to have a good junior year.”
Valiuskyte came to Rider from Lithuania, via The Rock School. As a sophomore, she played in 24 games, making 11 starts and was fifth on the team in three-pointers.
“Kornelija is another point guard for us who started off the season really strong last year,” said Milligan. “She is developing a presence as a point guard to run this team. One of our hardest working players, she is always going to be out there giving 100 percent. As a junior, I am expecting big things out of her.”
Banks, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, attended Prep Charter and scored 987 career points as a four-time Public League selection before playing 45 games for Cincinnati in the BIG EAST.
“We’re excited to get Lashay on the floor,” said Milligan. “She got to practice with us last season and she has been a big part of this program already without putting a uniform on. We’re excited to see what she can do. She is anxious to get on the floor. She gives us great length on the perimeter, good scoring ability, and she is a terrific rebounder. You can also slide her inside a little bit for MyNeshia or with MyNeshia, so we’re excited about her versatility.”
Johnson, from Manassas, Virginia (Osbourn) appeared in 29 games (six starts) and led the team in three-pointers. Johnson was Rider’s fourth MAAC All-Rookie selection (MyNeshia McKenzie, Caitlin Bopp, and Sarah Homan) in the past six seasons.
“Mikal is an All-Rookie performer,” Milligan said. “I am looking for her to make a big jump this year. She has worked extremely hard this offseason; she had a great spring and a terrific summer and has gotten bigger and stronger and extended her range. She has become a better penetrating guard.”
Loutzenhiser, from Orinda, Calif. (Miramonte), appeared in eight games, all off the bench as a Rider rookie.
“If you watched us in practice at all last year, Janine was probably our best shooter,” said Milligan. “Her feet are set, she is ready to go, and it’s going down. Look for her to make a step as a sophomore as we try to get her on the floor using a lot of pick-and-pop and mismatches.”
Pellet, from Marseille, France (Montpellier Academy), played in 27 games as a Rider rookie, making four starts and averaged 13.3 minutes per contest.
“Manon is extremely healthy and very strong right now,” said Milligan. “She worked hard in the spring to garner her strength and her communication between her and me about being a point guard is better than it has ever been. She is very determined and a hard working student-athlete. The step this year is big for her and I think she might surprise some people.”
Wentzel, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Baldwin), played in 26 games as a freshman, making 18 starts, including 11 in a row prior to senior day with Rider going 8-3 in those games.
“Taylor has a great second half of the year,” said Milligan. “She was arguably our best guard as we got into the late part of the season. She took over the point guard position and handled it very well. Taylor worked hard on her shot this summer and her presence on the court as a point guard being able to lead the team has continued to improve as well.”
Wentzel was second on the team in assists at 1.8 per game.
Duggan is a 6-1 center from Marmora, New Jersey who earned South Jersey Group III First Team, Atlantic City Press First Team and Cape-Atlantic League First Team honors as both a junior and sophomore with her Ocean City Lady Raider squad winning the South Jersey Group III title in 2010-11 and advancing to the South Jersey Group III semifinals in 2011-12.
“Julia is going to bring in some more size inside,” Milligan said. “She will help fill the mold left by Caitlin Bopp. She is a very good face up player and can post on the block. She moves really well and had a terrific summer.”
Mason is a 5-9 guard from Jackson, New Jersey, where she was a four-year captain for the three-time Shore Conference 'A' South champions with her Jackson Memorial team winning the NJSIAA State Group IV championship and the Central Jersey Group IV sectional title in 2011-12. Last season, Mason earned All-Ocean, All-Shore and All-Division team honors and her 85 three-pointers ranked third in New Jersey.
“Steph brings long range shooting,” Milligan said. “She reminds you a little bit of Mikal as far as her range. She is going to be able to give us depth at our guard spot and extend our three-point range on the perimeter a lot more than we have in the past.”
Sitting out this season as a transfer from St. Francis (Pa.) is Willingboro, New Jersey native Robin Perkins, who will have three seasons of eligibility remaining, beginning in 2014-15.
Perkins graduated from nearby Trenton Catholic where she lettered in both basketball and track.
A 5-10 guard, Perkins led the Lady Mikes to three New Jersey State Championships in basketball and she was also a New Jersey State Champion in the high jump while maintaining membership in the National Honor Society. A career 1,000 point scorer, Perkins was named the New Jersey State Tournament of Champions Most Valuable Player as a junior.
“Robin will do exactly what Lashay (Banks) did, which is be a terrific piece at practice and challenge our other players to get better,” said Milligan. “When I look back, one of the reasons MyNeshia has such a great junior season was because of Lashay. They battled every single day in practice. I think Robin is going to do the same thing for Lashay, Mikal, and Emily and be that important piece of the puzzle in practice that pushes her teammates. Having Lashay with her will help her understand about being a transfer and how hard it is and how some days are better than others, particularly when we’re on the road. But Robin has a good head on her shoulders and is a very talented young lady, athletic and long. Having a year to hone her skills and fit into our system will be terrific for her and us as a team.”
As a freshman for the Red Flash, Perkins averaged 2.4 points per game in 26 games.
One of the key pieces to the puzzle for Milligan is the return of Associate Head Coach Pam Durkin and Assistant Coach John Miller to her staff for their seventh seasons, along with newcomer, Assistant Coach Chloe Hamilton.
“I have been very blessed to have the coaching staff I have and the people around me to make this program better,” Milligan said. “Pam and John have been with me from day one and have built this with me from the start. We have the same exact visions, goals and passion for this University and for this program and that is an important thing because continuity is very good for our student-athletes. They thrive off of it and trust my staff. They know when we tell them something it’s coming from the right place because we all want the same thing. Adding Chloe to the mix has been fantastic. The players have really gravitated to her. She is a bright young coach who wants to be good in this profession. She isn’t afraid of the hard work and has fit in very well with us. Just like our players, every coach has a role and part of Chloe’s role is the fact that she is a little closer in age to some of our players and can relate to some of the things they’re going through better than I can.”
With the season beginning on November 8 at Lafayette and a 20-game conference schedule, Milligan can’t wait to get her Bronc squad back on the court to start putting the pieces together for a successful season.
“I’m excited, anxious,” Milligan added. “This time of the year it is a lot of preparation. This summer was terrific because I was able to be with the players a lot more then I would in the past, so we’re very excited to get started.”
Rider plays a 29-game schedule, including for the first time, 20 MAAC games with the conference opening play the last weekend in December.
“The biggest change of adding two teams like Monmouth and Quinnipiac is that our conference improves and gets stronger every year, even without the conference expansion,” Milligan said. “Quinnipiac and Monmouth are going to make it that much tougher, day in and day out. The 20 league games and starting MAAC play right after the holidays is also going to be new for everyone. Three-fourths of the schedule is going to be MAAC games that are pretty intense battles on a daily basis.”
Working hard every day and putting the pieces together. Let the building of the puzzle begin.