ELMIRA, N.Y. -- The 41st season of women's basketball at Elmira College is right around the corner, as the Soaring Eagles are set to tip off the 2017-18 campaign on Wednesday, November 15, when they welcome Hilbert to Speidel Gymnasium for a non-conference contest at 6:00 p.m.
It's the first time in three seasons that the EC women will begin their schedule on their home hardwood. The battle with the Hawks, however, is one of two just home games for the Soaring Eagles during the non-conference portion of the schedule, with the other coming on December 5 against Clarks Summit. Including the Empire 8 Conference opener against St. John Fisher on January 4, the Purple and Gold play inside Speidel Gymnasium a mere three times until mid-January.
EC's Empire 8 schedule, however, is back-loaded with home games. Beginning with a conference matchup against the Saxons of Alfred on January 16, seven of the team's final 11 contests will be played at Speidel. By that point on the calendar, the road-hardened Soaring Eagles hope to find themselves in contention for an elusive Empire 8 Tournament bid and will welcome the home-court advantage.
This year's convocation of Soaring Eagles returns all but two players from the 2016-17 squad, including the "core four" that consists of Danielle Cleary '18, Emily Green '18, Lindsey Heaton '19 and Rachel Vespucci '19. All four upperclassmen were in the starting lineup for every game a year ago and they all averaged over 30 minutes per game. Given their experience and skillset, expect this quartet to shoulder the majority of the workload for the Purple and Gold this season.
"We return a core group of what we had last year, so I don't know that we're changing a whole lot" said Head Coach Shannon Howley. "I think we just want to do what we do better than we did last year."
"As a whole, I think the group has all taken a leadership role," Howley added about EC's dynamic core of seniors and juniors. "Everybody has sort of had a voice in the early part of the season so far and I think that's been good. When you get different groups and lineups on the floor, you're going to get leadership no matter who you have out there."
Elmira's backcourt is a talented one, as it features a 1,000-point scorer, two former E8 Rookies of the Year and both of EC's seniors. Leading the bunch is Cleary, who has established herself as a perennial scoring threat and one of the best all-around players in the conference. A three-time E8 All-Conference honoree and the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year, Cleary finished her junior season ranked fourth in the league in scoring (15.7 ppg), seventh in rebounding (7.3 rpg) and was among the top 10 in 3-pointers, blocks and steals. Heading into her final collegiate season, the Rochester, New York, native ranks fourth all-time in points (1,150), and with another banner year, she could find herself contending for the program's all-time scoring title.
Joining Cleary in the starting lineup will be Green and Heaton. When she heats up, Green has the ability to pull up from anywhere on the court. The senior from Fredericksburg, Virginia, has finished second on the team in 3-point makes in each of her two seasons donning the Purple and Gold, and averaged a career-high 9.0 points per game in 2016-17. Heaton, on the other hand, is an aggressive point guard who will once again orchestrate EC's up-tempo offense. The 2015-16 Empire 8 Rookie of the Year dished out a career-high 109 assists a year ago, third-most in EC single-season history, and at the same time bumped her scoring average up to 10.9 points per game.
Providing valuable depth at the guard positions will be Bridget Yaw '20, Makayla Krause '19 and a trio of freshmen. In their first seasons on the team, Yaw and Krause came off of the bench, but now a year wiser, expect to see their responsibilities increase in 2017-18. Yaw, who can also play the post with a 5-foot-10-inch frame, received more court time as the season progressed, highlighted by an eight-point, 10-rebound performance in 37 minutes against St. John Fisher in late January.
From the Class of 2021, Brittany Boyce '21, Krystyna Lilland '21 and Maleah Williams '21 will look to make an impact as freshmen. Boyce, a 5-foot-6-inch guard from Tioga, Pennsylvania, is coming off of a well-decorated prep career at Williamson High School. A former All-Star and All-Region selection, she was also crowned Williamson's Outstanding Female Senior Athlete by the Tioga County Sports Hall of Fame following graduation.
A healthy group of forwards could be a difference maker for the Soaring Eagles this year. Last season, only one of the team's four post players – Vespucci, an E8 All-Conference Honorable Mention selection – was available for the entire season. While she turned in a highlight-reel campaign as a sophomore, the now-junior from Macedon, New York, will surely need some assistance down low.
Vespucci was the only player in the Empire 8 to average a double-double for the season in 2016-17, making her the first EC player to do since in 30 years; the last was Sheila Aber '87 in 1986-87. She pounded the glass for a league-leading 10.9 boards per game, in addition to scoring an average of 12.3 points per game. The 5-foot-9-inch forward hauled in a career-high-tying 18 rebounds twice against E8 foes Stevens and Houghton in January, and she dropped a career-best 25 points against Alfred in February. If the Soaring Eagles are going to establish a strong post presence this season, it will be Vespucci who does the heavy lifting.
Lauren Franklin '20 is in line to see starter's minutes as well and is versatile enough to do so at either the two, three or four. The product of nearby Binghamton, New York, came on strong in the second half of her debut season, as all of her 14 starts came after the New Year. Franklin concluded her rookie season averaging 6.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, the later ranking third on the team and 12th in the league.
The remaining duo may lack experience, but both boast tremendous potential. Emily Breheny '20 debuted as a freshmen a year ago and will be utilized more prominently this winter. Standing six-feet tall, Breheny flashed her rebounding ability with 5.7 boards per game, but played in just seven contests in the months of November and December.
Perhaps the most significant addition to the 2017-18 roster is the return of Sally Hogan '19, who was forced to miss all of last season while recovering from injury. The 6-foot-3-inch junior is one of, if not the tallest player in the conference. Originally from West Rutland, Vermont, Hogan's first assignment will be to use her height advantage and mile-wide wingspan to control the glass, but she also presents an obvious mismatch on the offensive side of the ball that the Soaring Eagles would like to exploit.
Elmira and Hilbert, a North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) affiliate, have developed quite the non-league rivalry over the past few years. The 2017-18 opener will mark the fourth consecutive season that the feathered foes square off. EC won the first two matchups in 2014 and 2015, but was defeated by the Hawks in Hamburg, New York, in last season's opener by a score of 77-65 score.
Cleary has fared well against the Hawks in her career, as she has averaged 21.7 points per game in each of her first three meetings with Hilbert, including 26 points on the road last November. She'll look to lead the Soaring Eagles to a win to kickstart the year, a feat Elmira hasn't accomplished since winning its 2013-14 opener.
"It will come down to execution," Howley said. "If we can defend and rebound, I think we give ourselves a very good shot game-in and game-out. We always compete at a high level, so if we can do those other two things consistently, I really like our chances."