The CCSU womenâ€™s basketball team had a roller coaster season.
The Blue Devils won just one game during their non-conference slate and entered NEC play just 1-10. That non-conference schedule consisted of several difficult games including three ACC opponents (Syracuse, Boston College and Virginia Tech) and one Big East opponent (Seton Hall) among other big time programs. CCSU didnâ€™t win any of those games but it did take Seton Hall into overtime.
After the rough start, the Blue Devils opened up conference play with six straight wins and at that point it seemed like the tough non-conference schedule was helpful even if it didnâ€™t yield the results the team had hoped.
â€śWe played an extremely tough schedule and we knew that getting through that was going to be a challenge,â€ť head coach Beryl Piper said. â€śWhen you consider that seven of the 11 kids on our team are freshmen and sophomores it was always going to be tough for us.â€ť
It is always a risky proposition to play a difficult non-conference schedule, especially with a team as young as CCSU is, because it can go either way. On the one hand, the losses can shake the playersâ€™ confidence early in their college careers. But on the other, such as what happened to be the case for the Blue Devils, playing tougher teams early on can prepare the squad for conference play when the competition level is brought down a notch.
â€śI think playing that schedule makes our kids understand how hard they have to play,â€ť Piper said. â€śDo I love playing a tough schedule like that with a young group of kids? Not necessarily. I think if you are a little bit older and a little more experienced itâ€™s probably better.
â€śUltimately for us itâ€™s about being prepared to play in the conference and if playing those teams gets us to be more sound fundamentally with what we need to do, I donâ€™t think it hurts us.â€ť
CCSU certainly found plenty of success early on in the conference season but sputtered to a 9-9 record in the NEC in the end. Piper believes there were two reasons for the dip in performance in the back half of the NEC regular season slate. One was injuries to key players Giocelis Reynoso and Andi Lydon and the other was the fact that many of the players hadnâ€™t played this long of a season before.
â€śI think mentally and physically for some of the girls it was tough,â€ť Piper said. â€śAdd on to that Giocelis wasnâ€™t fully healthy for a good portion of the conference schedule and Andi missed some time.
â€śGiocelis was such an important player for us because she patrolled the paint and rebounded the ball so well. Even when she didnâ€™t get the rebound, she made it so somebody else could. When she wasnâ€™t 100 percent it hurt us. Andi is a good player for us too, so without both of them being healthy we had to adjust for a while.â€ť
Despite the setbacks, the Blue Devils earned the No. 6 seed in the NEC tournament which meant that they would likely be on the road for as long they were still in contention. The team entered the conference tournament as healthy as it had been in a while and pulled off an upset of Saint Francis University in the quarterfinals to advance to the semifinals where top-seeded Robert Morris awaited.
CCSU kept it close for most of the game but ultimately fell to a team that had more experience in big games. Robert Morris would go on to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
â€śWe didnâ€™t get the win and we were all disappointed,â€ť Piper said. â€śI think the kids really felt we could get it done but we just couldnâ€™t get over the hump. That Robert Morris team has seniors that have been in the NEC Championship every year so they had plenty of experience.
â€śBeing so young this year we didnâ€™t really know what to expect so getting to the semifinals is great. But having said that, we want to always get to the final game. Our goal is to win the whole thing so I think these kids will work hard over the summer and come back next year ready to try and achieve that goal.â€ť
The youth of the 2016-17 CCSU womenâ€™s basketball team may have been part of its downfall but it is now a big reason why the future is so bright. The Blue Devils will only be losing three players from this past seasonâ€™s team and although two of those players - Aleah Epps and Reynoso - were starters and key players, there are a lot of promising players that should lead the team to an even better season in 2017-18.
â€śThere were a lot of times this year where we had a lot of young players in the game and for the most part they were getting it done,â€ť Piper said. â€śSo I am excited about next year. I think the kids that we have coming back are kids that have really good work ethic and kids that really enjoy playing the game.
â€śI think [sophomore] Kiana [Patterson] has the most experience of anyone coming back because she played a lot as a freshmen and this year. She will be better and Andi will be better. I also think Cebria Outlow, Ashley Chin and Taylor Goode are two freshmen that Iâ€™m really excited about their futures as well.â€ť
On top of all of the returning players that Piper is excited about, there are also three incoming recruits that she believes will have a big impact in their first year on campus.
â€śWe have three freshmen that have signed so far,â€ť Piper said. â€śOne of them is a 6-foot-3 post player. With losing Gio we definitely need that. Another one of the kids is a garbage pail type of kid from Long Island that is just going to come in and be a workhorse for us so we are excited about that.
â€śWe also have another Canadian kid that is coming in that can shoot the basketball and get to the rim. She has the ability to make really good passes for her teammates. We are excited about the three kids we have coming in and we think they can really help us and add to what we are losing.â€ť
Michael Woolfson can be reached at 860-801-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @Bigwoolf5