Ranked in Top 25 for first time in program history, Tufts will face host of new challenges

After spending last season getting acquainted with the national stage, the women’s basketball team has a new mission for its upcoming 2008-09 campaign: exhibit some staying power.

The Jumbos will begin the encore to their greatest season in program history on Saturday when they travel to Willimantic, Conn. to take on non-conference foe Mount Ida in the Eastern Conn. State University (ECSU) Tip-Off Tournament. After winning a school-record 26 games, reaching the NESCAC finals and advancing to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament last year, Tufts faces a whole new set of challenges heading into this weekend’s opener. Chief among them will be dealing with all the pressures that accompany being a serious national contender.

“We’re a completely different team,” coach Carla Berube said. “It’s taken us a little while to recognize that we’re going to have that ‘X’ on our back and that people are going to be out for us after having the success we did last year. This year’s team hasn’t accomplished anything yet … I think there’s more confidence in us, but as a team, we definitely need to keep working. Nothing has been given to us, and we need to fight for everything like we did last year.”

One look at the national polls suggests just how much last season’s run raised the profile of Tufts’ program. For the first time in their history, the Jumbos are ranked in the D3hoops.com preseason Top 25, coming in at No. 16, just three spots behind defending national champion Howard Payne and two behind runner-up Messiah at No. 16. But Tufts knows that the increased notoriety has put the team squarely in the crosshairs of its opponents, all of whom will be eager to take down an emerging national power.

“I think being ranked in the preseason poll was a nice little nod to our program and the success we had last year,” senior co-captain Kim Moynihan said. “That being said, I think there needs to be an emphasis on our team that it is just the preseason poll and that we haven’t done anything yet. People are going to come out gunning for us, and we need to be ready for that.”

First and foremost on the Jumbos’ agenda is a NESCAC championship, one of the few achievements that eluded them last season. At the tail end of its 2007-08 campaign, Tufts made its second consecutive appearance in the conference title game, where it squared off against top-seeded Amherst in what promised to be a tight contest between two evenly matched teams. The game lived up to its billing, but the Jumbos found themselves on the wrong end of a painful 59-53 setback. Having fallen one win shy of a NESCAC crown in each of the last two seasons, Tufts enters this year eager to reverse its fortunes.

“Our first priority is a NESCAC championship,” Berube said. “We’ve come up short in the last two years, so we better be fighting for that tooth and nail. We want to get back to that final game and make it a different ending.”

“It has been kind of a pain in our side that we haven’t won a NESCAC championship,” senior co-captain Stacy Filocco said. “For us, that really is important. As great as the NCAA victories are, to win the NESCAC championship really makes a statement.”

Hoping to put the Jumbos over the top will be a roster of 17 players, the largest squad Berube has fielded in her seven years at the helm. Among the 13 returners are three members of last year’s starting five: Moynihan, sophomore point guard and reigning NESCAC Rookie of the Year Colleen Hart and senior center Katie Tausanovitch. Two starting spots were opened by the graduations of Jenna Gomez (LA ’08) and Khalilah Ummah (LA ’08), and Berube says she has yet to determine exactly who will fill those voids.

At the very least, she’ll have a plethora of choices. Tufts is bringing back all 10 members of a bench that played a huge role in the team’s postseason run last year and is adding four newcomers — freshmen recruits Kate Barnosky, Rachel Figaro and Tiffany Kornegay and sophomore walk-on Sarah Nolet — to the mix.

“We’ll decide by the end of the week who’s going to be starting on Saturday, and then hopefully we’ll stay consistent with that, but you never know,” Berube said. “With 17 people, there’s room for a lot of people to step in. All of the 17 could play a role on our team and could be important, whether in practice and/or in games.”

“We have 17 people on our team, and honestly, I couldn’t imagine this team without any of them right now,” Moynihan said. “People are going hard in practice and really pushing each other, and with 17 girls on the court, there’s always going to be someone having a good day who is going to make you play better and play harder.”

The Jumbos will waste no time putting their new lineup to the test. Within the first two weeks of the season, Tufts will play at least three teams that appeared in the NCAA Tournament last year: Brandeis (Nov. 30), Salem St. (Dec. 2) and Colby-Sawyer (Dec. 6). Depending on how the results of the ECSU Tip-Off Tournament shake out, a fourth squad could be joining that list as early as this weekend, as the Jumbos could collide with the host and defending Little East Conference champion Warriors on Sunday.

“We have some very difficult games ahead of us,” Berube said. “Eastern Conn. has been a powerhouse for many, many years in New England, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to play them on Sunday. Then we go right into Endicott, who’s really good, to Brandeis, Salem State, Colby-Sawyer — so there’s no easy games ahead of us in November and December. And that’s the way I always want it — I want us to be playing the best.”

While the challenges ahead are daunting, a confident Tufts squad is eager to meet them head-on.

“I think we’re just really excited to play some games,” Filocco said. “It’s been a very long preseason, and we’ve been practicing for a while, so now we’re just looking to gauge ourselves. It’s one thing to play against the same people every day in practice and a completely different thing to test yourself against another team. It’ll be very exciting for us to play Mount Ida, a team that we haven’t played before, and just show what we can do.”