Leopards Ready to Run in 2017-18 Campaign
EASTON, Pa. -- With a new coaching staff, new culture and new faces, the Lafayette women's basketball program enters the 2017-18 heading towards a bright future. Under the direction of first-year head coach Kia Damon, the buzz around the program is trending in the right direction and that's something the first-time head coach is looking forward to in her maiden voyage at the helm of the Leopards.
Damon becomes the program's second head coach in three seasons and is poised to guide the Maroon and White in a new direction. The Leopards have hills to climb, losing two starters from last year's squad, including Harriet Ottewill-Soulsby who was a two-way threat for Lafayette during her time on College Hill and ended her career ranked 11th in career blocks. The other loss is Olivia Gumbs who led the team in scoring with 10.5 points per game.
"From where we were from our first practice until now and when we take the court against La Salle on Nov. 10, I'm looking forward to continuing to see this team grow and move forward as a unit," said Damon.
This year is the first opportunity for Damon and her staff to put their stamp on the program and use it as a learning experience to build upon the new culture. On top of bringing in her first batch of recruits to help facilitate a new style of play, Damon can lean on some returning veterans during the season. Sharpshooters Anna Ptasinski and Sammy Stipa, along with center Ellen Graham return for their senior seasons on College Hill and will be the leaders for a relatively young squad this upcoming season.
There is an excellent mix of experience and fresh faces in the Leopards' backcourt this upcoming season. Stipa and Ptasinski return as the experienced leaders of the group, which won a Patriot League Tournament game last season, defeating Holy Cross in the first round.
Stipa was the only player to start in all 32 games in 2016-17 and will be looked to for leadership and to act as a as a scoring threat from the point after avearging 6.3 points per game last season. Joining Stipa in the leadership department is Ptasinski, who will rack up most of her points on the perimeter. After knocking down 46 three's a year ago, the Highlands Ranch, Colo. native will be looking to continue to move up the all-time leaderboards as she currently ranks seventh all-time with 111 career three-pointers.
"Anna and Sammy have really come in and set an example for the rest of the team," Damon stated. "They really show the younger players how to work and how to come to practice each day, and from practice, I can really see them becoming key cogs in our offensive system."
Alex Cantwell and Nia Holland represent the members of the class of 2019 for the Leopards. Holland appeared in all 32 games as a sophomore while Cantwell played in 29 games last season. Both will be looking to expand their roles this upcoming season under Damon.
"From our practices so far, Alex and Nia have really shown us some good things they can do and I believe they have the ability to be solid two-way players for us. I'm excited to see them progress into the season," Damon said.
Further building out the backcourt nucleus are a trio of sophomores, including one new transfer to the program. Sarah Agnello and Tasha Vipond return for their second seasons on College Hill, after contributing off the bench as freshmen.
"Sarah has been a little banged up to start the year, but she's working on getting back and her shooting ability will help us on the court," Damon stated. "Tasha's been doing a really good job in our practices and she's a real high-energy player. She runs the floor well and is a good interior defender and rebounder."
Joining the sophomore class is transfer Sydney Sabino. The guard comes to College Hill after one season at Wagner.
"Syd has to sit out this year being a transfer, but we're happy she's going to be a part of what we're trying to do here moving forward," said Damon. "She's a marksman, and she'll make you pay for leaving her open on the perimeter."
Rounding out the backcourt rotation is a duo of freshmen in Drew Freeland and Olivia Martino. Both come to College Hill with winning expectations, as Martino won a national championship with Riverdale Baptist in 2014, while Freeland broke multiple records at Hidden Valley during her time there.
"Drew has shown that she can come in and be aggressive and score, but she also plays good on-ball defense and is just as hard-working on the less glamorous end of the court," Damon remarked.
"Olivia has been in and out of practice with some small nagging issues, but she can really stretch the defense and knock down open looks. She can also put the ball on the floor and create her own shot."
Lafayette has three outright frontcourt players on its roster for this season, and while the losses of Ashley Lutz and Ottewill-Soulsby took away some of the depth down low, the remaining faces are ready to step up and contribute to Damon's offensive gameplan.
Graham returns as the lone senior in the frontcourt. A key role player over the last three years, she has taken on a leadership role with her teammates this season.
"Ellen, like Anna and Sammy, has really stepped up and shown the younger players what it means to come to practice every day to work and be prepared," Damon said. "Ellen has shown glimpses of what she can do within the offensive system and how her skillset fits what we want to do as a team."
Sophomore Alexis Santarelli is the other returning post player for the Leopards. After appearing in all 32 games as a freshman and averaging 4.6 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest, Santarelli has come back looking to fully establish herself as a post presence for the Maroon and White.
"Alexis has shown herself as our physical presence inside and has really established herself as a threat down-low."
The final member of the Leopards' frontcourt rotation is freshman Natalie Kucowski. She comes to College Hill after a successful high school career at Saint Basil's Academy in Philadelphia, Pa. which included three District One Championships.
"Natalie is very skilled and has a very good inside-outside game," said Damon. "She's growing and learning how to play interior defense at the collegiate level. She has really started picking up on our defensive schemes and reads, and should be a solid contributor for us this season."
Head Coach Kia Damon isn't the only new face on the Leopards' sideline this season, as Damon filled out her staff with coaches that bring a lot of experience and enthusiasm to the program.
The first addition to Damon's staff was assistant coach Tom Lochner. He comes to College Hill with more than 30 years of experience as both a head coach and assistant.
"Tom brings a wealth of experience to the table," Damon stated. "He'll be able to help us manage and gameplan for all scenarios, and can really help us challenge the team in practice and help us grow as we move forward. I'm looking forward to working with him and learning from him and really just creating our system together."
Natalie Jarrett comes to College Hill after spending time at Lipscomb University as well as at UC Santa Barbara. Jarrett played collegiately at UCLA and works with the post players.
"Natalie works with our post players and really seeks to develop them individually and create an identity," Damon said. "She brings a lot of energy day-in and day-out and has really built relationships with all the players."
The final member of the staff is Jennifer Montoya, who comes to Lafayette after working on Penn State's staff.
"Jen works with our point guards and has really put the effort in to get them to understand their role of coaches on the floor," Damon remarked. "I'm really looking forward to seeing how Jen is able to encourage our kids to score and really help us have five weapons on the floor at all times."
The Maroon and White have a slate of 29 games this season, with 13 coming within the friendly confines of Kirby Sports Center.
The season kicks off with a home matchup on Friday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. versus the Explorers of La Salle. After two quick road trips to St. Peter's (Nov. 12 at 1 p.m.) and Penn (Nov. 18 at 4:30 p.m.), the Leopards return home to battle Rider on Nov. 21 at 7 p.m. and LIU-Brooklyn on Nov. 25 in a 2 p.m. contest.
Lafayette embarks on a season-long four-game spate away from home beginning on Dec. 9 as the Leopards take on Robert Morris at 1 p.m. The Maroon and White then head to Wagner (Dec. 20 at 12 p.m.), before starting Patriot League play with a bang as they head to Lehigh on Dec. 29 at 4 p.m. The final game of the four sees the Leopards travel to Worcester, Mass. for a Jan. 2 contest with Holy Cross at 7 p.m.
The regular season wraps up for the Maroon and White with an away match-up against Colgate on Feb. 28, in a contest scheduled for a 7 p.m. tip-off. The Patriot League Tournament begins on March 3.