Contributed by Fairfield University Athletic Communications
Experience is one team component that all coaches, in any sport, would like their team to have. For Fairfield’s Joe Frager, his team features five players who have as much experience as any group in the conference.
Seniors Katie Cizynski, Brittany Obi-Tabot, Christelle Akon-Akech and Alexys Vazquez, along with Felicia DaCruz ‘15, all have multiple years of playing at this level to their name. All of them have played in multiple MAAC Tournaments and different post season tournaments, and all experienced playing in a MAAC Tournament Final two years ago against Marist.
Including Casey Grace ‘14, who transferred to Fairfield going into last season after two years of playing at community college, the Stags have five seniors on the team. Of all MAAC teams, only Siena has more seniors on its roster, with six.
This would lead most people to think that the Stags are in a great position to take a shot at Marist, who has been entrenched atop the MAAC standings for almost a decade. But there is another side of this year’s team that has already made Coach Frager ask, “What exactly are we doing right now?”
The remaining seven players on the team have a year or less of Division I collegiate basketball experience each, including three true freshmen or, in the case of Margeaux Dupuy ‘15 and Casey Smith ‘16, are ineligible to play this season due to transfer rules.
Due to that drastic imbalance in the lineup, Coach Frager said that the team will rely on the experienced players more not only during games, but in practices as well.
“Right now we have the stability of Katie [Cizynski] and Obi [Tabot], who have been through it, and Lexy Vazquez,” said Coach Frager. “So those three are sort of the kids that we lean on for stability and leadership, and Felicia [DaCruz] is vastly improved. She’s had as good a preseason as I could ask of her so far … we’re going to rely on Christelle [Akon-Akech] as well.”
Coach Frager said that the seniors so far have led the inexperienced players along nicely, culminating in the last few practices before the season started being the best practices of the year. He went on to say that this class is best suited to lead because of the success they have had as a team and individually on the court, but would like to see them improve in some areas of leadership as well.
“Leadership wise, they’re good right now by the old lead-by-example,” said Coach Frager. “Where they have some growing to do is in terms of leading vocally, because those three people [Cizynski, Obi-Tabot and Vazquez], they are just so nice, and they don’t want to rub anyone the wrong way. So at times I think they’re going to have to understand, as leaders, it’s OK to rub somebody the wrong way if you get the end result.
“You can’t do that all the time, but I think that’s the challenge of, ‘When should I step up and be a little more firm with my team, and when do I need to back off and encourage,’ which is something they all have to grow into. And we have to try to help them.”
Cizynski said that she thinks the process of integrating the freshmen is going very well, saying that the new players are “definitely open to listening” to the upperclassmen.
“Being a senior, I know what to expect, especially with practices and plays and whatever, so that’s a lot easier. A lot of it is helping the younger kids get a hold of that quicker,” said Cizynski.
Her fellow seniors agree, and have begun to embrace their roles.
“I feel like just yesterday, I was in a freshman’s position and I was looking up to the seniors, so it definitely makes us take on a different role being the leader, because now everybody is following us,” said Vazquez. “If we have a lot of energy and intensity at practice, then it’s going to impact the rest of the team.”
Akon-Akech said that the team overall is benefitting from the large influx of new players these past two years.
“Also, having new people is a good thing because you change your game in a sense,” said Akon-Akech They look up to you, so you try to show them what to do, but at the same time you see different ways to play. Kelsey [Carey] is very similar to Katie [Cizynski], but she’s also very different, so its little things like that.”
Aside from keeping up their own game and teaching the freshmen, the seniors on this team have one main goal that hasn’t changed throughout the years: winning.
“I think this year, us five seniors really want to win. It’s our last year, and I think it’s starting to hit us that we may not play basketball again [after college],” said Obi-Tabot. “So this year we’re really pushing ourselves to make a name for ourselves. We’re the biggest class we have on the team, and I think this will be a good year.”
After their early exit from the MAAC Tournament last season, Akon-Akech said that the team will use all the losses from last year as motivation for the upcoming season, not just the one that dashed their hopes of a MAAC Tournament Title.
“You don’t forget. Let’s say Rider last year. You want to move on from that, but you don’t forget that you lost twice against them,” said Akon-Akech. “Everyone talks about Marist, but there are other teams that we have to take care of, and that’s the thing.
“You do it all for that. That’s the goal, that’s the aim,” Akon-Akech said about winning. “All you’re going through, all the struggles, the tears, everything — it’s for that. That’s all we have left. It’s a motivation.”