Experience will be key to Tufts’ success this season

Tufts then-senior center Hayley Kanner (LA '15) goes up for a layup during the first half of the Tufts women's basketball game against Fitchburg State in Cousens Gym on Dec. 6, 2014. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

Of the 13 years that coach Carla Berube has led the Tufts women’s basketball team, the 2014-15 season may have been the most decorated. Back-to-back NESCAC championships, back-to-back NCAA Div. III semifinal appearances, the United States Marine Corps/Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) NCAA Div. III National Coach of the Year award and a second consecutive 30-win season. Not only that, but her student-athletes collected two WBCA All-American honors, the D3hoops Northeast Region Player of the Year award, the NESCAC Player of the Year honor, a Capital One Academic All-District team selection and three All-NESCAC selections among themselves.

That might be a mouthful, but it does not even cover all that the women’s basketball team has accomplished over the past few years.

The program’s prestige has steadily risen, but that is not where its focus is heading into this season. Instead, knowing that they have a target on their back as one of the top four teams in the country from last year, the Jumbos are preparing and pushing even harder to exceed that success this year.

“We’ve been super successful in the past, but we don’t want to dwell on that,” senior guard Emma Roberson said. “We know that we’re a new team this year and, kind of, that past success doesn’t really mean much for this year, except that I think it does almost help us in practice because we know that every team is kind of outgunning for us. You always want to be the team who won the league championship the prior year, so I think that just kind of motivates us more to work harder and know that every team is going to give us their best game.”

Tufts, who enters the 2015-16 season ranked No. 3 in the preseason polls, will take the court without some integral pieces of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 teams. All-American Hayley Kanner (LA ’15), Kelsey Morehead (LA ’15) and Hannah Foley (E ’15) were all starters on the teams that won the program’s first and second NESCAC championships. The tri-captains from last year could get it done on both ends of the court, often leading the team in offensive and defensive stats categories over their four-year careers at Tufts.

At the same time, however, both Morehead and Foley were injured for extended periods of time last year, which gave younger players a wealth of experience on the floor. Not only did Tufts repeat its record-breaking year from 2013-14, but it did it with a full-team dynamic as players stepped up to fill voids left by injuries. In particular, sophomore point guard Lauren Dillon, junior guard Josie Lee and sophomore forward Melissa Baptista gained minutes on the court.

Berube noted that young players gained notable experience last year and have grown as players.

“[Dillon] seems like a seasoned veteran out there right now running the point,” she said. “And Melissa [Baptista], as well, has stepped up into a larger role already.”

Lee, however, who often took over for an injured Foley last season, has been battling an injury of her own in the preseason. Her status for the season opener on Saturday was unknown as of press time.

The team is hopeful that last year’s conditions have built a strong foundation for this team.

“Josie [Lee’s] still coming back from an injury, so she hasn’t quite gotten on the court yet,” Berube said. “But we’ll see how all of that experience that those three, [Dillon, Baptista and Lee], got with the injuries of Hannah and Kelsey last year, how it transfers into what they are this year. So far, those returners from last year, you know, I’ve been really happy with their leadership and [that they have been] bringing along the [first-years] that we have, so we’ll see. Court-wise, it’s hard to tell in practice.”

Roberson echoed these sentiments, explaining that being given the opportunity to play vital roles in the big run during last year’s season helped the team members build the confidence needed to step up and be a leader on and off the court.

Though the Jumbos’ starting lineup for the first game was still shifting and settling into place throughout the final week of practice, one thing is certain: The team will definitely see major contributions from junior Michela North. North led the NESCAC in shooting percentage last year and was selected as a preseason All-American honorable mention by D3hoops.com. Her dominance in the paint — fourth in rebounds per game in the NESCAC and second in blocks — will play an important role in Tufts’ approach to this season.

Three first-year players join the roster this season: guard Jacqueline Knapp, forward Katie Martensen and forward Lindsay Bloom. While their roles for the team are still taking shape this early on, coach Berube was encouraged by the progress thus far.

“I will say they are working very hard, and they’re picking things up pretty quickly and I think that they fit very well into our team,” she said. “So I’m excited about their future … We’ll see what kind of impact they can have right away. It all has to do with what they can give every day in practice, and like I said, I think they’ve been working really hard. And they’ve gotten a lot of reps in practice because we’ve had some sicknesses and some injuries, so they’ve been on that court. You know, I think that they’re getting right out there, and we’re throwing them into the fire, so it can only be good for their experience.”

The Jumbos will start the season with an away matchup at Brandeis. The first month-and-a-half or so of competition will not count as in-conference play, giving Tufts plenty of time to prepare for the stretch of the season that will determine whether or not it has the opportunity to claim a third consecutive NESCAC crown.These games will be the preparation the team needs for conference play, which starts in January. That does not mean, however, that the early games are any less important or challenging.

Brandeis is the reigning Eastern College Athletic Conference champion, and Eastern Connecticut State University, Tufts’ second opponent, advanced to the Sweet 16 in last year’s Div. III championship, where it was defeated by Tufts.

“This will be a really good test for us, and I’m excited to see how we respond,” Berube said in regard to the opening stretch of games. “Both teams will have played three games before we’ve played our first. It’ll be exciting for sure.”

Looking ahead a bit further, Tufts’ third game of the season, on Nov. 30, comes against another former national championship opponent, University of New England, a team that Tufts defeated in overtime on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Liz Moynihan (LA ’14). The fourth contest of the season will be a Dec. 5 game against NESCAC opponent Bowdoin — a rematch of last year’s NESCAC championship.

With a competitive stretch of first games ahead of them and a lot of success behind them, the Jumbos are ready for the opportunity to prove themselves once again.

“I think the seniors last year were kind of a lot of our offense — they all did a little bit of everything,” Roberson said. “So there are a lot of roles to be filled, and I think, like I said, people are just really excited to step up and fill those roles for us this year.”