Thomas Shea/The Mirror

With women’s basketball under way, this season should prove to be up to the standards that have been established since Joe Frager became the head coach.

The Stags have reached the point where qualifying for a postseason tournament is no a longer rare and exciting thing. Instead, the players and fans are now concentrating on moving on to bigger and better tournaments in March, as this team has reached the postseason in each of the past three years.

There are a number of key games on the schedule that stand out as either big-time matchups or just revenge games for one side or the other. The two biggest games may be in December, as Fairfield flies to Spokane, Wash. to take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs, and then they play host to powerhouse Oklahoma on Dec. 18.

Other revenge games include Lehigh and La Salle in late November, both of whom beat the Stags last year, and St. Bonaventure on Nov. 17, whom Fairfield beat 52-49.

A Look Back at 2012

The clear difference between this year and last year is the definition of the starting lineup. Last year, Fairfield was going into the season having just lost their best two players to graduation, but still had the consistent Katelyn Linney ’13 in the front court and Brittany MacFarlane ’13 to come off the bench, as she had just won the Sixth Player of the Year Award in 2011-2012.

Alexys Vazquez ‘14 was coming into the season fresh off a sophomore campaign that saw her finish among the leaders inIMG_6658 three-point field goal percentage, so her place was pretty secure. But after that there were a few question marks.

How would Felicia DaCruz ’15 handle being the new starting point guard? Would Katie Cizynski ’14 continue to improve, making up for the loss of the graduated Taryn Johnson ’12? Would Brittany Obi-Tabot ‘14 become a reliable scorer down low?

The answers to these questions came in time. DaCruz settled into the position and did a solid job running the point, never flashy, and did average fewer than two turnovers per game. Cizynski absolutely filled in for Johnson, leading the team in scoring and rebounds. Obi-Tabot also stepped up, leading the team in blocks and joining Cizynski on the second team all-MAAC roster. Vazquez also was among the leaders in three-point field goal percentage for the second straight year.

Despite the struggles of Linney, who at times went very cold from the floor and struggled at the free throw line (as did most of the team), the team found success early on, getting off to a 6-1 start in league play. They would cool off and finish 11-7 in conference games, and were ousted early in the MAAC Tournament, losing in the first round to Siena, 52-48.

The team would qualify for the Women’s Basketball Invitational, and lose in the second round on a buzzer beater by the University of Pennsylvania.

This Year’s Starting Five

The Stags return their top three scorers from last season in Cizynski (11.9 points per game), Obi-Tabot (10.5), and Vazquez (8.3), as well as their point guard, DaCruz. The only new addition to the lineup is Kristin Schatzlein ‘16, who appeared in all 32 games for Fairfield last year, but did not start any. The former Gatorade Girl’s Basketball Player of the Year for Connecticut averaged four points and two rebounds in just over 14 minutes per game, and was named to the MAAC All-Rookie team.

This is a pretty solid starting five for Fairfield, with a lot fewer question marks than last year and one that can compete with any team in the conference. It gets shaky when the bench comes into question, as the Stags just don’t have the experience to match the other top teams in the MAAC, but look for Christelle Akon-Akech ‘14 to be the pivotal player off the bench this year, and contend for the Sixth Player of the Year Award.

Player projections

Cizynski, 14 points per game/eight rebounds, named to MAAC First team; Obi-Tabot, 12 points per game/6.5 rebounds, named to MAAC Second team; Vazquez, nine PPG/3.5 rebounds, 41 percent from three-point range; Schatzlein, nine PPG/three assists and DaCruz, five PPG/four assists.

Prediction for the season

Let’s make this clear now: Don’t expect a regular season title coming back to Alumni Hall this year. I mean no offense to this team, but Marist is simply too good, Iona is returning all five starters and newcomer Quinnipiac is fresh off an NCAA Tournament berth of their own coming from the Northeast Conference.

Fairfield is in a unique position in the MAAC this season. While they are perhaps a half step behind the three teams ahead of them, they are also a step ahead of the rest of the teams in the conference. The only team that appears to be a legitimate threat to the Stags from the rest of the league may be Rider, who did beat Fairfield twice last year. Siena has some talent, but Lily Grenci graduating hurts their chances a lot.

From this, it appears that if Fairfield can take care of business with the teams below them and pull off an upset or two, either during the season or in the MAAC Tournament, then this could a sleeper year for the Stags, and could slip into a WNIT bid. I want to say there is a chance at an NCAA Tournament bid, which there could be if they get help from some other members of the conference, but that is not likely, as Marist will most likely win it again, though Iona could dethrone them if the Red Foxes are not careful.

Team Projection

Regular season 19-10, 13-7 in conference, tie for third place with Quinnipiac; lose in MAAC Tournament semifinals, go to WNIT or WBI Tournament.

Quinnipiac could struggle a bit adjusting to the higher level of play of the MAAC in comparison to the NEC, but they will still be very good. Fairfield goes winless against Iona and Marist, but does take one of two from Quinnipiac, and hits a speed bump late in the season when they do their New York trip to Siena, Canisius and Niagara all during the final week of the regular season. The Stags make it out of the quarterfinal round against Rider, but lose to Iona in the semifinals.

Bottom line

Expect another solid year from the Stags under Coach Frager, but until something changes over at Marist, don’t expect them to go away anytime soon. Iona is an up-and-comer and will challenge, with Fairfield and Quinnipiac ready to strike as well, but this is still the Red Foxes’ conference.

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