The Marist Women’s Basketball team has not lost a game since January 30. In a usual year, that might mean that the Red Foxes won the national championship last spring. Sadly, 2020 has been anything but conventional, and Marist’s winning streak has been stuck on 12 games since March 11.
Last year’s 26-4 campaign was the best season since the program’s last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014. It was four months of thrilling, fast-paced, team-oriented basketball that ended in utter heartbreak.
Now, with a much younger team that has not had the opportunity to begin full-contact practice, Brian Giorgis must juggle building a contender in the MAAC with ensuring his team’s health and safety during a global pandemic.
“This whole situation has definitely been difficult, but we’re just trying to make the best of the situation,” said Willow Duffell, the senior forward. “We’re doing at-home workouts and spending lots of time with each other, just trying to make things work.”
All basketball-related activities have been on pause for over two weeks as Marist College attempts to deal with growing numbers of COVID-19 cases. There is still much uncertainty about when practice can resume. “Things are way up in the air,” Giorgis said. “We’re still waiting to hear when we can get going again.”
When activities do get going again, the coaching staff will have their hands full with evaluating a roster that lost its three best players – Rebekah Hand, Alana Gilmer, and Grace Vander Weide. Throw in the departures of Hannah Hand and Molly Smith and the Red Foxes will only return 29 percent of their scoring offense from last season.
Replacing five players in one recruiting cycle is a daunting task, but the coaching staff succeeded by bringing in one of the most highly-touted classes in recent memory. Forwards Caitlin Weimar, Erin Fox, and Zaria Demember-Shazer are all New York products. Guards Emma Wax and Anabel Ellison hail from New Jersey and Florida, respectively. Usually, Giorgis and his staff would have had ample time to see how the recruits fit into the program. That is not the case this year.
“I haven’t seen them play five-on-five yet,” said the Marist head coach. “They come in highly-touted and eager to learn. They work hard, but their roles are yet to be determined. We’re just looking forward to getting them practicing and making them better.”
Weimar and Ellison appear to be the rookies that have the best shots at playing time. Weimar, who stands at six-foot-four, averaged a double-double with points and rebounds in every season of her high school career, including 23 points and 16 rebounds per game in her senior season. Ellison, a five-foot-eleven guard, averaged 25 points per game in her senior year of high school and is a dangerous perimeter shooter.
Willow Duffell was the only Red Fox named to any of the preseason All-MAAC teams. Duffell, who garnered third-team honors, led Marist in field goal percentage (56 percent) last season and is the team’s leading returning scorer (7.5 PPG). The senior honors student is now one of the team leaders.
“As leaders, we’re just trying to check up on everyone and see how they’re doing,” said Duffell. “We pass down announcements from the coaches and just try to make sure everyone is on the same page.”
Senior guard Allie Best and junior guards Sarah Barcello and Kendall Krick are also stepping up. Besides Duffell, Barcello is the only other returning starter from last year’s team. Best will likely be this year’s starting point guard, and Krick looks to be in the running for a spot in the starting rotation.
Trinasia Kennedy leads a group of sophomores that should see more playing time this season. The Binghamton native appeared in 26 games last year and had some promising moments mingled with some problems taking care of the ball. Forward Sam Bailey and guard Julianna Bonilla will be fighting for minutes off the perpetually deep Marist bench.
“I think there’s a good number of players that are going to be exciting to watch this year,” said Barcello, who averaged 6.2 points per game last season. “Last year, we had a big group of seniors, but now there’s a new dynamic, and there are going to be multiple players who fans will get to know better.”
While it will be exciting to see some fresher faces, the Red Foxes are expected to take a step back in the MAAC this season. Marist was picked fourth in the preseason coaches poll, well behind Manhattan, Fairfield, and Quinnipiac, who are bunched together at the top.
Although the Red Foxes lack the experience of their conference rivals, Giorgis knows they can compete. “The thing that’s different about last year is that there is no pressure on these kids,” the 19th year head coach said. “Last year, we were picked first, but this team doesn’t have to deal with any of that. This team has so much room for growth, and if this team keeps improving on both ends of the floor, it only matters what happens in March. I don’t see why we can’t play with anybody.”
The revamped MAAC schedule does not make things easy for the Red Foxes. They will have to play a series against Quinnipiac, Manhattan, and Fairfield in consecutive weeks in January, with games against the Bobcats and Stags coming on the road. After that brutal stretch, there is a chance for Marist to make hay against the lower echelons of the conference.
The non-conference schedule continues to bedevil Giorgis, and pretty much every other Division I head coach. “Our games change almost daily,” he said. “Right now, we just have two games left, both at home.”
Marist lost its date with Vermont after the Catamounts canceled all non-conference games. The Red Foxes canceled their meeting with Drexel and UMass Lowell nixed them from its schedule. The only confirmed non-conference game Marist has is against Albany in the McCann Center on December 5.
If the Red Foxes can get into the gym and begin full-contact practice, their coach thinks they have a chance to contend in the MAAC. “I think we’ve got the type of kids that will continue to get better,” said Giorgis. “We have depth, we have the right attitude, why not us at the end?”
Edited by Bridget Reilly & Sam DiGiovanni