When head coach Trevor Woodruff looks at his University of Scranton women's basketball team in the huddle this season, it will look significantly different from the one he has coached over the past two seasons. Despite the changes, the Lady Royals are expected to be in the hunt to capture their third straight Landmark Conference title.
Scranton returns just three players from Woodruff's first team two seasons ago that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Most notably gone are All-Americans Sarah Payonk and Alexix Roman, who graduated after last season, when the Lady Royals won their second straight Landmark Conference crown and reached the Sweet 16.
Even so, Scranton was picked to be in the middle of the hunt for this year's title, according to the preseason poll of head coaches, released by the Landmark Conference on Tuesday morning. The Lady Royals received 56 points and three first-place votes to place third. Moravian (four first-place votes) and Catholic (one) were tied for the top spot at 58 points, just two ahead of Scranton.
Elizabethtown (32 points) was fourth, followed by Juniata (22), Drew (20), Susquehanna (19) and Goucher (7).
The Lady Royals are ranked in two national preseason polls, as well. They are 13th in the Women's Basketball Coaches Association preseason poll, while D3hoops has Scranton ranked 19th in the preseason.
Gone, at least for the moment, are the days of Scranton looking to its two post players to carry the load on offense. Instead, Woodruff expects the offense to be more versatile, which could make the Lady Royals more dangerous as a team.
"The way I've explained it is that we've had essentially one pitch the last couple of years," Woodruff said. "It was a really good pitch and we won a lot of basketball games playing with two players and running the high-low and everything funneling through them. I don't think we're in a situation now where we're going to run everything through one player, which can be a strength. Even though we don't have All-Americans, we'll have more threats on the court because the offense will allow for more people to be involved more often."
That versatility will begin with junior guard Bridgette Mann (Canadensis, Pa./Wallenpaupack), who has been a two-year starter and is the lone junior on the roster. She has shown the ability to take care of the basketball while hitting the big shot, as she did with a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last March.
"For her, the challenge will be stepping out of that role as kind of an auxiliary star where she could play off of the other two big girls and become that primary scorer, primary play-maker and primary defensive player," Woodruff said of Mann. "That's where we've tried to push her to improve her game the most – at the defensive end. So she's got to take a big step for us to stay relevant and in title contention, and she's capable of doing that."
Mann has started all 61 games in her career. Last season, she averaged 13.6 points while shooting 35.8 percent from 3-point range. She added 3.5 assists and 0.9 assists per game.
The Lady Royals have just two other upperclassmen in senior guard Katie Broderick (New Fairfield, Conn./New Fairfield) and senior forward Katie Feehery (Media, Pa./Cardinal O'Hara). Broderick started 18 of 30 games last season, averaging 3.7 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists. She scored a career-high 14 points in the Landmark Conference championship game last season, earning MVP honors in the process.
Feehery, who was slowed by injury as a sophomore, has played in 53 career games off the bench, averaging 2.0 points while shooting 50 percent from the field.
"They're going to be solid players for us. We know what we're going to get from them just about every night," Woodruff said of the senior duo. "Where they fall in the rotation could change throughout the year. I don't know if we'll have a set five (starters) like we have in the past. It could depend on matchups and personnel of the opponent more than it has in the past two years.
"We're excited for both of them to get the opportunity to play major minutes because they've both been patient and done things in the right way."
The five-player sophomore class will contribute in different ways, led by guard Emily Sheehan (Dunmore, Pa./Dunmore), who played in 20 games, including 11 starts, despite overcoming injury last season. She averaged 3.5 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists, and shot 32.6 percent from 3-point range.
"Her role on our team is still going to be as our primary, number 1 defensive player," Woodruff said. "She's going to play the other team's best player, if it's not a center, most nights. She doesn't make a lot of mistakes and she plays with great intensity. And she understands how to win. All she's ever done is win, right from high school through her first year. We've only lost one game with her in a uniform; the other three games she was injured."
Makenzie Mason (Doylestown, Pa./Central Bucks West) can play both guard and forward, and at 5-foot-11, can pose some matchup problems for defenders. In 25 games off the bench last season, she contributed 2.2 points and 2.5 rebounds.
"I think Mason's going to have a good year," Woodruff said. "She's looking good in the preseason and she's more comfortable and confident. She's a kid who can get you 10 or 12 points in a game and you don't really notice it. She can make the 3 and play off the dribble and post up a little bit, so she can score in a lot of ways."
Point guard Lily Warhaftig (Harlem, N.Y./Poly Prep) came on strong at the end of last season, playing significant minutes in two Landmark Conference playoff games and three NCAA Tournament games. Her most significant contribution may have been slowing down SUNY Poly's Stevie Ray in a 76-65 victory in an NCAA Tournament second-round game in the Long Center. Ray had 15 points at halftime a night after scoring a Long Center record (men or women) 43 the night before, but Warhaftig helped the Lady Royals hold her to just nine in the second half as Scranton held on after leading by two at the break.
"Lily proved at the end of last year what she's capable of," Woodruff said. "I think the next step for her is to do that consistently. She changed the outcome of multiple games for us down the stretch last year, so we know she has it in her. We're trying to figure out how we can get that from her on a more consistent basis.
"She can do a lot of things, she's a terrific ball-handler, she can create off the dribble, she can bang the wide open shot and defensively she's as good as probably anybody in the conference."
Six-foot-two center Sofia Recupero (Whitestone, N.Y./St. Francis Prep) will step into a larger role after playing in 18 games off the bench last season, averaging 4.0 points and 2.4 rebounds per game.
"I think her ceiling is really high. She does some things that even those post players who graduated couldn't do. She moves better than both of them and she's bigger than both of them at legitimately 6-foot-2," Woodruff said, referring to the two senior post players who graduated last season. "She can step away and shoot from 3 on occasion. It's not something where we run plays for her, but if they leave her open, she can make that shot. So, we're optimistic that she can develop into an all-conference player."
Julia Gantz (Havertown, Pa./Archbishop Carroll) will don a Lady Royals uniform for the first time after she missed all of last season after suffering a knee injury. She played her freshman season at Bloomsburg University before transferring to Scranton.
"She can do a little bit of everything," Woodruff said. "She has some guard skills and she has the strength to play bigger people. She does have one year of experience under her belt, although it was two years ago in a different system. So she's still a rookie having to learn almost from scratch, and we're playing her at a different position than she played as a freshman, out of need. So there's still a learning curve that has to take place. I think once she figures it out, she's going to be a very good player because she's a difficult matchup for other teams."
Woodruff and the Lady Royals welcomed a six-player freshman class that will also contribute at different times during the season. Guards Josie Barrett (Ambler, Pa./Upper Dublin), Cassandra Cruz (Wayne, N.J./Saddle River Day), Ava Gammo (East Hanover, N.J./Hanover Park) and Taylor Rodriguez (Wayne, N.J./Wayne Hills) will battle for time in the backcourt, while forwards Chloe Burns (Philadelphia, Pa./Springside Chestnut Hill Academy) and Kate Howard (Florham Park, N.J./Gill St. Bernard's) add size and depth in the paint.
"I'm excited about the class," Woodruff said. "We've had two classes now, and we have four in the sophomore class that can play and three in the freshman class who can all play, so I feel good about what we're doing."
Another new face among the Lady Royals this season is assistant coach Taylor Coleman. Coleman joined the Lady Royals this past summer after spending two seasons each at Susquehanna and DeSales. She was a standout on the women's basketball team at DeSales from 2009-2013, helping the Bulldogs win Freedom Conference titles in 2010 and 2011, and serving as a team captain as a senior in 2012-13.
The Lady Royals open their season on Friday, Nov. 17, against King's at 6 p.m. at Wilkes University in the Cross-County Challenge. They'll face the host Lady Colonels in the second day of the Challenge on Saturday at 4 p.m.
"We're hoping to turn that into a traditional opening-weekend event for local basketball fans to really kick things off," Woodruff said of the Cross-County Challenge. "I'm excited for that first weekend. I think it's going to be excellent basketball and it'll be good for the local teams to see each other."
Scranton will host the Hilton Scranton Poinsettia Classic on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 15 and 16, in the Long Center. Opening night action features Messiah against FDU-Florham at 6 p.m. followed by Hartwick against the Lady Royals at 8.
"We're excited about our own tournament, the Hilton Scranton Poinsettia Classic, because there are some outstanding teams," Woodruff said. "I think three NCAA Tournament teams will be here when you consider us, Messiah and FDU-Florham. And the fourth team is no slouch – Hartwick had a terrific season and they're a contender in their conference."
In the Landmark Conference, Woodruff pointed to the preseason co-favorites – Moravian and Catholic – as teams he expects to see in the middle of the title hunt. Scranton opens Landmark Conference play on Saturday, Dec. 2, when the Lady Royals travel to Huntingdon, Pa. to take on Juniata at 4 p.m.