If someone had asked Head Coach Joe Frager at the beginning of the season where he thought his team would finish in the standings for the regular season, there are a lot of different things he could have said.
Maybe he would have looked at the fact that his team was returning four major contributors from last season’s squad, including the leading scorer in Katie Cizynski ’14, and said that his team could contend for the conference crown.
Or maybe he would have seen that everybody outside of those four had little to no playing experience in Division I, leading to a weak bench as well as a middle-of-the-pack finish (or worse) in MAAC play.
Luckily, I asked him that exact question to start the year. His response? Through what he coins as “coach-speak,” he saw this year’s team as one that had potential to do some damage.
“ … it is a delicate balance, because we do have two or three players that are really essentially to our success,” he said back in November. “Honestly, if everything does mesh and clicks right, I think we can surprise some people. I really, really do.”
Surprise people they have. Especially if those people Frager was talking about are from Marist.
Even though the team was picked to finish fourth in the conference in the preseason poll, and finished around there (one spot ahead of that in third), the surprising thing has been how well the team has played consistently throughout the season.
“I have to give our senior class a lot of credit,” said Frager. “You never know how seniors are going to react to their last year. It either becomes really all about the team, or sometimes seniors can make it all about themselves, and they’ve made it all about the team. A lot of the credit has to go to them.”
Fairfield finished the regular season at 20-9, including winning 15 of their 20 MAAC contests. That is thanks in no small part to Cizynski, who was just named to the all-MAAC First Team after finishing the season averaging 16.5 points and more than eight rebounds per game. But she credits the performance of the team overall as the key reason for their success.
“I definitely think that we’ve become way more comfortable playing with one another, as well as we’ve been more focused,” said Cizynski. “We’ve been on the same page with coach for the most part. Just coming together as a team.”
It was Cizinski’s fellow captain in Alexys Vazquez ’14 who also has received accolades from the conference. The sharp-shooting senior was second on the team in scoring and was one of the best three-point shooters in the country again this season. The all-time three-point field goal percentage leader in Fairfield history (.407) needs only three more from beyond the arc to set the single season Fairfield record for most threes hit in a season.
It is the support of Vazquez, as well as Brittany Obi-Tabot ’14, Felicia DaCruz ’15, Kristin Schatzlein ’16 and others, that has Frager saying confidence is “pretty high” when it comes to this club heading into the MAAC Tournament.
“We’ve had different players step up for us during this stretch. Obviously, Katie has been our rock for us, but we’ve had different players step up for us and really contribute,” said Frager. “I think the improvement in Felicia DaCruz’s game from last year to this year I think is night and day.
“I know they want to do well. It’s been pretty obvious: They’ve been pretty attentive in practice, they’ve been locked in on what we’re trying to get them to do.”
Cizynski shared in Frager’s confidence regarding the team, as she points out that they also played Iona very tough during the season on top of their win over Marist, showing that they belong with the best of the best in the MAAC.
“I think beating them and losing to Iona by only a few points definitely shows us that we can compete with anybody as long as we’re just focused,” said Cizynski. “So I think it has given us confidence knowing that we can do it.”
Add into the fact that this has been one of the best years for the conference in general, and that makes Fairfield’s play that much more impressive. The conference has four teams whose RPI has been below 100 in the past few weeks, showing just how good the MAAC has been this year (the RPI is Rating Percentage Index, and it evaluates how good a team is based on wins, losses, and strength of schedule in comparison to all Division I teams, so a lower ranking is better. Teams with RPI under 100 have an outside chance of getting at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. Fairfield just fell out of the top 100 following their loss to Niagara on Friday).
Despite the high rankings nationally, Frager is not concerned with them, as it doesn’t appear Fairfield would get a bid to the NCAA Tournament without winning the conference tournament. Frager is just happy with how he has seen his team grow this season and how they have performed in a variety of games, something that he believes will help them come Friday against either St. Peter’s or Rider, whoever wins the first-round game.
“We’ve had some games where we’ve won by a good margin, but more often than not we’ve done well in the closer games,” said Frager. “We’ve scraped [games] out, and … I think they may have even surprised themselves a little bit. It’s been a fun group to coach, they’ve given me their best, and that’s all you can ask for.”