The women’s basketball team will start their season this Friday under the guidance of a new coach with a familiar face. Jill Pace will make her Tufts coaching debut against Roger Williams, who won its season opener Tuesday against Wheaton College 73–57. And as the Jumbos look to kick off their long and grueling season with a win, the biggest focus will be on Pace, who served as an assistant coach for the Jumbos from 2014–16.
The Jumbos were hugely successful on the national level those seasons, making the Div. III final four in 2014–15 (and claiming a NESCAC title), and reaching the national final in 2015–16. Pace, who leaves her role as coach at Pomona-Pitzer in California, spoke on the comfort of returning to a program she already knows.
“Knowing the program, knowing a little about the university as a whole has been helpful,” Pace said. “I had some really fun years here, and I learned a lot. Definitely excited to be back.”
During her tenure as coach of Pomona-Pitzer, Pace orchestrated an extremely impressive rebuilding of the women’s basketball program in just three seasons. In her first year at the helm, the team claimed just one win, posting a 1–23 record that seemed to indicate that Pomona-Pitzer would be a cellar-dweller team for years to come. For Pace, however, the team culture and buy-in were already taking shape despite a demoralizing win-loss ratio.
“The wins and losses weren’t there, but the culture was established in that first year,” Pace said.
Pace was correct, as the team improved to an 8–17 record the next season. In her third and final season as coach, the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens made a leap that caught the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference by surprise, racing to a 22–6 record that included a win over the Colby Mules. Such an astounding turnaround doesn’t happen magically, however, and it’s clear that Pace’s vision and plan for the team started paying out just three years into her stay.
“It was really about the culture change,” Pace said. “I just coached the way I knew how, which is creating a good culture and getting players who want to win. Buy[ing] in is really important.”
Now, Pace rejoins a team with a strong culture and players who have certainly bought into the program and their winning mentality. Beyond that, Pace says she has felt welcomed by the warm presence of the team and its positive energy during the two weeks of preseason. It’s important that the team gets on the same page from the get-go, as they have only 12 or so practices under their belt before the season opener.
“They’ve been very open to learning new things that we’ve brought,” Pace said. “That stems from our captains and seniors doing a great job leading.”
Senior captain Erica DeCandido, who plays both guard and forward, also reflected positively on the opening weeks of the season.
“Coach Pace has already set expectations and standards, and she has made Tufts her home,” DeCandido said.
Established senior leadership from a core that has won huge games and also lost some heartbreakers through the years is invaluable for a first-year coach looking to get comfortable with a new crop of players.
After claiming the NESCAC crown last season, one could bet that this team is hungry for their ultimate goal of winning a national title. The first step, of course, is to earn their first of two games of the Tufts Tip Off Tournament, which will be played at UMass Boston. Roger Williams, which stood at an even 13–13 at the end of last season, will be looking to take the next step and challenge Northeast powerhouses like Tufts in an early non-conference showdown.
As is common across Div. III basketball, Tufts will play a majority of the first half of its season against non-conference teams. That includes Skidmore, Brandeis, WPI and the University of New England, all strong teams from Northeast that will be good preparation for the NESCAC showdowns later in the season.
This season, the Jumbos are led by senior captains Lily Paro and DeCandido, both of whom had important roles as leaders and contributors on the path to the NESCAC title. Paro, a guard from North Bethesda, Md., has proved to be a 3-point marksman, often coming in off the bench to lead the second unit. DeCandido plays both guard and forward, and proved to be the team’s most dynamic scoring threat last season.
DeCandido shared the team lead in points per game with graduated senior guard Jac Knapp (LA’19) at 12.8 PPG. What’s more impressive is that DeCandido also managed to lead the team in assists and rebounds, putting up two double-doubles in last year’s NCAA tournament. Expect DeCandido to once again be a central focus of this Jumbo team that averaged 71.4 points per contest last season. DeCandido says she’s excited for the upcoming season, and is energized by all of the changes surrounding the team.
“I think with a new coaching staff, the senior class has a chance to make new traditions,” DeCandido said. “We have a lot of returners back too so our team is always super close.”
Both Paro and DeCandido logged in the top five in the NESCAC in various statistical categories. Paro came in at second for 3-point percentage, while DeCandido earned third in the league for assists. DeCandido was also a first-team All-League selection and was selected to the All-Northeast second team for her efforts up and down the floor.
While the Jumbos lack a league-leading scoring threat, expect DeCandido to lead the charge by dishing the ball to Paro and sophomore guard Molly Ryan to knock down threes and jumpers. If the Jumbos can maintain their balanced attack and keep opponents guessing, expect another very strong season. Combine this with the experience and obvious excellence of Pace and her assistant coach Jamie Insel, and this program has a real chance of claiming that national title they so desire.
Tufts’ first two tests will come against Roger Williams on Friday and SUNY New Paltz on Saturday. Tip-off against Roger Williams is set for 8 p.m. at UMass Boston.