Local college basketball preview: Smith College must replace big pieces from last year’s dream season

By HANNAH BEVIS

Staff Writer

Published: 11-17-2023 5:40 PM

Last year’s Smith College basketball team had a season for the history books.

The Pioneers qualified for its first ever Final Four after winning their third consecutive NEWMAC title. Senior Morgan Morrison won the D3hoops.com Player of the Year Award, head coach Lynn Hersey earned NEWBA Coach of the Year honors, and three players – Morrison, Katelyn Pickunka and Jessie Ruffner –were named to NEWBA’s All-Region teams. The list goes on and on.

It was a historic season, and one its fans won’t likely forget soon. But it’s going to be a very different Smith basketball team this season, and their attention is focused firmly on the season in front of them.

Gone are Pickunka and fellow starter Dashelle Gleissner, who used up their final year of eligibility last season, as well as Morrison, who transferred to NYU to get her masters in engineering while playing for the Bobcats’ basketball team. Pickunka and Morrison were the team’s starting forwards, and its their absence that might be felt the most in the paint.

Smith is still going to have plenty of experience on the roster this season – Ruffner, Amelia Clairmont and Ally Yamada are all returning guards and were integral parts of last year’s magical run. Smith will look to build around them as they search for a new team identity.

“We’re gonna win differently this year, and we’re very capable of doing that. I think that’s our learning curve is to make sure we’re putting players in their strength areas and making sure that they’re going to be successful in the moments where we really need them to show up,” Hersey said. “That’s going to come down to our guard play, and those three have a big responsibility to lead the way in terms of that (on) both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively.”

Besides the core of Ruffner, Clairmont and Yamada, the Pioneers will also be looking for their first-years to play prominent roles this season. Some of them have already shown flashes of what they’re capable of – Hersey expects Hannah Martin and Maggie Fleming to step up in their first year on the team. The Pioneers also got an incredible post player from the transfer portal – former Tufts starter Sofia Rose, who should be a big help in the paint.

Smith is currently 2-0 and will face Mitchell College at UMass Dartmouth on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.

Bounce-back year

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In his 17 years at the helm of the Amherst College women’s basketball team (16 seasons because of the canceled 2020-21 season), head coach G.P. Gromacki had always seen his team listed in at least one of the Top 25 preseason polls at the start of a season.

Until this year.

Last year wasn’t the best year for the Mammoths, who have become accustomed to dancing in the NCAA tournament every year. Just two years ago, they made it all the way to the Final Four. But inexperience and other growing pains cut their season abruptly short last year – they got bounced in a one-point 58-57 loss to Trinity College in the NESCAC quarterfinals, and as a result, didn’t get a bid in the NCAA tournament.

It’s not something that Gromacki is used to, and he hopes that last year will be a blip in the radar and that they can right the ship this season.

“We’re excited to get going. We’re one of the last teams to start playing in Division III...we’re looking for a bounce-back year because we had an uncharacteristically down year for our program,” Gromacki said. “One of the big things is we had three of those first years hurt – two (Annie McCarthy and Laura Mendell) didn’t play at all because they got hurt before the season started and (Sylvia Liddle) missed the last 11 games. So with them healthy and into the mix, we definitely have more options.”

Those three players played a significant role in Amherst’s first win this year – Liddle and Mendell both started, and McCarthy played 26 minutes off the bench. Gromacki expects Reeya Patel and Kori Barach to also be big time players for the Mammoths, Patel especially. One of the team’s starters last year, AnLing Vera, is taking a step back from basketball this season, and Patel is likely one of the players who will be looked to to fill that role this season.

Amherst is 1-0 and will next play in the SUNY Morrisville Tip-Off Tournament this weekend.

Fast and furious

Amherst College men’s basketball head coach Marlon Sears is optimistic going into his fourth year with the team (third year coaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Though they dropped their first game of the season in overtime, Sears liked most what he saw. One of the main things he hopes his team can accomplish this season is working on their speed, something they were lacking a bit of last year.

“If you watched us last year, we were really slow, methodical. We really struggled to get into offensive actions. This year, we’re playing significantly faster, we’re really trying to put a lot of pressure on the rim,” Sears ssaid. “But all that being said we are a defensive minded team.”

This year’s team is also more experienced, relying on a strong junior and sophomore class. The squad has just two seniors, Mohammed Alausa and Dan Schlakman, who Sears expects to lead the team on and off the court this year, but the junior class was Sears’ first recruited class, and the sophomores have a lot of talent he expects to show on the court.

“(Junior) Ryker Vance, I think is going to have an absolute incredible year. Between him and (junior) Will Scherer, I think those two guys will anchor what we do on the inside,” Shear said. “But my most talented group is probably the sophomore class, and that’s Charlie Randall, Chris Hammond, Drew Martin and Giovanni Tam. Those guys, their growth from freshman to sophomore year has been extraordinary so far.”

The men’s team will travel to the Ken Wright Invitational Tournament this weekend for their next pair of games.

Lyons look to improve

Mount Holyoke will look to improve from last season, where they finished with a 2-23 record. The Lyons are 0-3 to start the season, but have lost by single digits in their last two contests. Their next game will be on the road against Johnson and Wales at noon on November 18.

Hannah Bevis can be reached at hbevis@gazettenet.com. Follow her on Twitter @Hannah_Bevis1.