By Meredith Cook
Special to goholycross.com
The 2011-2012 Holy Cross women's basketball team has prepared for the upcoming season a little differently than seasons past. Instead of focusing on the big season, which starts the second weekend in November, the squad has concentrated on what head coach Bill Gibbons has tabbed as the three "preseasons." The team is using the pre-seasons as a way to win before even stepping on the court. The first pre-season pertained to the strength and conditioning done in the off-season. Working with second-year assistant coach, Chante Bonds, the team has upped the physical training and is, as Gibbons sees it "in the best shape I've seen them in coming into the season. The team definitely stepped up to the challenge set by Coach Bonds and won our first preseason."
The team is currently in their second preseason, working on game fundamentals and practicing together day in and day out. With the season just weeks away, the squad has developed week by week and feels that they're ready to begin their third preseason. Once they pass the test of playing in an exhibition, the third and final preseason, the squad will be ready to begin the actual season. By working through each preseason, the team has been able to come together, exploiting the weaknesses and praising the strengths and have prepared themselves for a successful 2011-2012 season.
Leading the squad will be two-time team captain and lone senior, Meredith Ward. The team will look to Ward as the leader, on and off the court. Coach Gibbons, who enters his 27th season at the helm of the program, commends his captain, saying, "it certainly helps when your hardest working player is your leader." "This is the case with Meredith. Her work ethic has been tremendous. She has a great passion for the game."
Joining Ward will be eight other returning letterwinners, including three starters, and three freshmen. The upperclassmen make up four out of the 11 roster spots and will serve as the experienced veterans needed to help lead the team back to its winning ways.
The 2011-2012 frontcourt will be led by junior forward/guard Amy Lepley, who topped the team in rebounding and blocked shots last year. Her 5.6 rebounds per game ranked ninth amongst Patriot League players. She is a threat not only on defense but on offense as well as she posted a 9.6 scoring average, third-highest on the team. Her 40.9 field goal percentage ranked second on the team and she posted two double-doubles. "Amy is back 100% healthy this season," said Gibbons. "In addition with some size in the frontcourt, she will be able to move back into her natural four position. We will definitely take advantage of her versatility and she is our team's best passer."
Also returning will be fellow junior forward Kaitlin Cole, who saw action in 29 games last season. She averaged 2.3 points and 1.8 rebounds off the bench for the squad and added 20 assists, nine steals and two blocks. "Kaitlin worked hard this summer and has been our best offensive rebounders through the early preseason," continued Gibbons. "She is determined to increase her role this season in our frontcourt."
Sophomore Christine Ganser adds another spark to the team's frontcourt, as she appeared in all 30 games in her freshman campaign. She ranked fourth on the team in rebounding and was solid from the free throw line, making 74.7 percent of her free throws. "The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores," continues Gibbons. "We as a staff have definitely seen improvements in Christine and believe that her advancements will carry over into the upcoming season."
Adding to the frontcourt depth will be two fresh faces. Freshman Clare Sullivan and Emily Parker, both listed at 6-3 and 6-2 respectively, will help the team get those tough rebounds in the paint. Sullivan hails from Belmont, Mass. where she played three varsity seasons at the Rivers School. Parker is an Iowa product, playing four years of varsity basketball at Johnston High School. Both freshmen were McDonald's All-America nominees and named All-Conference at least twice. "The team needed a center a back to the basket player," said Gibbons. "Fortunately we were able to get two very good ones in Emily and Clare. Since Kaitlin Foley in 2007, we haven't really had that true center. Both girls will help us fill that role."
The backcourt returns four players who have at least one year of experience under their belt. Two starters return as sophomores Alex Smith and Brisje Malone are ready to improve on their solid freshman campaigns. Ward will provide the most experience in the group while sophomore Kelly Hamner adds another offensive spark.
Smith comes back as a Patriot League All-Rookie team selection. As a freshman, she ranked 15th in the nation in three-point shots made per game as she finished the season with 82 three-pointers made. She ranked second on the team in scoring while leading the team in minutes played and assists. "Alex flourished in the starting point guard spot for us last season," commented Gibbons. "She's another player that works extremely hard and has become better. This summer she focused on her mid-range game and I see her as becoming an all-around threat."
Malone started the final six games of the 2010-2011 season and made a total of 18 starts in her freshman campaign. She averaged 7.1 points per game and had 29 steals, ranking fourth on the team in both categories. She finished the season with six double-digit scoring outings, including the final three games. "Brisje has worked extremely hard over the summer and in the preseason," remarks Gibbons. "The experience that she gained from last year in game situations will transfer directly to how she plays this year. Her experience is invaluable."
Ward is the veteran leader in the backcourt, as she remains as the team's shooting guard. Ward saw action in all 30 games last season while starting 13 and averaged 23.2 minutes, 5.5 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. She registered a Holy Cross single-season record when she went 12-for-12 from the free throw line against Quinnipiac and finished the season as the team's top free throw performer. Her 84.0 free throw percentage was also first amongst league players as well.
Hamner saw good action in her freshman campaign, averaging 16.3 minutes in the 28 games she played in. She average 3.0 points per contest and scored in double-figures twice. "Kelly also benefitted from game experience last season," commented Gibbons. "I know she will take that experience and use it as strength this upcoming season."
Gibbons' tradition of playing a tough non-conference slate does not escape the 2011-2012 season. Headlining the non-conference slate once again will be a Nov. 13 match against the seven time National Champions, Connecticut. A December holiday tournament at ACC powerhouse, Miami, also dons the non-conference schedule.
Holy Cross will also travel to play more locally-based Yale, Harvard, Central Connecticut, New Hampshire, Boston College and Brown. The team plays host to Quinnipiac in its home opener, and then Fordham, Massachusetts, Bryant, Northeastern and Dartmouth to wrap up its non-league slate.
"My thought process behind our non-conference schedule is to challenge ourselves with the best to become the best," remarked Gibbons. "I feel that the schedule helps us in all angles, especially during the season. That's been our philosophy."
The Patriot League looks to have three frontrunners coming out of the gates strong once again, as Lehigh, American and Navy all finished with 10-4 records in the league last season. Holy Cross, playing the seven teams in home-and-home series, realizes the challenge it faces against the top teams who return some of their top starters.
"Our goal for this season is to keep improving," Gibbons finished. "We are developing our identity as a team and have everyone believing in who we are. As we approach the first game of the year, we hope that we're in great shape and have everyone believing in our philosophy, both defensively and offensively."