Here's another in the series previewing conference teams.
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2011-12 RESULTS: 9-9 in MAAC play, 13-19 overall. Lost to Marist, 68-54 in overtime in the MAAC tournament's championship game.
KEY RETURNEES: 6-2 junior center Lauren Gatto (10.3 points, 5.7 rebounds per game last season), 5-10 junior guard Chanel Johnson (5.5, 3.0), 5-5 junior guard Kayla Stroman (10.8, 3.9), Meghan McGuinness (6.8, 2.9), Kelly VanLeeuwen (1.7, 1.2), Jessica Flam (2.1, 1.0).
KEY LOSSES: Guard Ali Morris (5.8, 3.8).
KEY NEWCOMERS: 5-7 freshman guard Vanessa Neal.
NOTES: The Purple Eagles are clearly the conference's "up and coming" program, having risen from an 0-18 league record (1-28 overall) just two years ago to a 9-9/13-19 record last year that included an 8-6 run down the stretch as the team seemed to mesh ... This year looks like it should be a carry over from last season's late run as the team lost only Morris, last year's fifth-leading scorer, from its top seven players ... Niagara certainly showed itself to be capable of contending, even against perennial league power Marist as it took the Red Foxes into double overtime in a late-season game and, then, into overtime in the championship contest ... Gatto, a strong 6-2 post player, provides the type of quality post presence most MAAC teams don't have, and she had 19 points and 10 rebounds against Marist in last season's conference tournament championship game ... Also in place is a fourth-year junior point guard in Kayla Stroman, who does a little of everything, and both overall team athleticism (which also bothered Marist last season) and depth ... Niagara has eight legitimate contributors (all averaging at least 4.3 points per game this year) back from a year ago, as well as a freshman (Neal) who is getting 10 minutes of playing time. That 9-member playing group makes Niagara as deep, if not deeper, than any conference team ... More than a few returnees have made significant progress from a year ago, most noticeably junior guard Chanel Johnson, who has nearly doubled last year's scoring average (10.0 ppg. this year), senior forward Flamm (6.5, 3.1 this year after 2.1, 1.0 last season), and sophomore guard VanLeeuwen (up to 7.0, 3.1 this year after 1.7, 1.2 last season) ... McGuinness provides another aspect, long-range shooting. Her 46.1 percentage from bonus territory last year would have led all Division I players had she made enough treys to qualify.
NIAGARA'S STRENGTHS: There's a little bit of everything here, more than enough to be optimistic about the league season. Gatto provides an inside presence, players like Johnson, Stroman, Britton provide quickness. Stroman is the requisite standout point guard. There are good shooters in place. The top eight players all got significant minutes a year ago and, theoretically, know how to play together by now. Gatto provides the type inside game that bothers Marist, in particular.
NIAGARA'S WEAKNESSES: So far, albeit against a solid non-league schedule, Niagara has a 2.7 rebound-per-game disadvantage. Gatto is the only contributor taller than six feet, but five other contributors are at least 5-9, which gives Niagara good overall height. Then there's the psychological aspect. Many of Niagara's players aren't that far removed from a 1-28 season and while the team had some late season success last season it still has the final hurdle ... beating Marist ... to get over.
REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS: Barring injuries or other unforeseen occurrences, Niagara looks to be one of the league's top three teams. And, certainly, contending for the league title isn't out of the question. If Marist fulfills expectations to add another league title to its growing collection, Niagara won't be far behind and will likely finish either second or third this season.