The University of Scranton women's basketball team has established itself as one of the best program's in the country over its first 43 seasons as the Lady Royals have won 1029 games with an .821 winning percentage in its history.
Scranton enters the 2018-19 season as the three-time defending Landmark Conference champion while making six straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament including winning at least two games in the national tournament in each of the past three years.
With four starters, including an All-American and two All-Region picks, returning to a team that went 28-2 on its way to a Landmark Conference title and Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament, expectations are extremely high in Scranton as the start of the 2018-19 campaign nears.
"We expect to compete for every championship that's out there," says head coach Trevor Woodruff, who has compiled an 84-7 (.923) record during his first three seasons leading the Lady Royals. "We have very lofty goals and expectations for our program, but we have a lot of work to do.
Scranton enters the 2018-19 campaign ranked in the top-10 in the country in a pair of polls as the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) selected the Lady Royals seventh entering the season, one spot ahead of the team's national preseason ranking of eighth by d3hoops.com.
Scranton is also the preseason favorite in the Landmark Conference coaches' poll. The Lady Royals were predicted to win their fourth straight conference title by garnering 70 points in the balloting while collecting seven of a possible eight first-place votes.
Elizabethtown was picked second with 50 points, Catholic was third with 46 points, and Moravian, which took Scranton to overtime twice during the regular season last winter, was slotted fourth with 42 points and one first-place vote.
Drew was tabbed fifth in the poll with 33 points while Juniata, which advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament after earning at at-large bid in the field after falling to the Lady Royals in the Landmark Championship game, were predicted to finish sixth with 27 points.
Rounding out the preseason poll are Susquehanna in seventh place with 22 points and Goucher in eighth with 14 points.
Despite the strong returning core that is expected to lead Scranton this fall, the team is far from where it wants to be according to Woodruff. "Preseason has been slower than we would have ideally hoped for. We've been hampered by a few injuries and two-thirds of our roster is underclassman who are still learning our system."
This season's rosters features nine players who are either sophomores or freshmen with six players completely new to the program.
Looking to help steer those young players in the right direction are senior guard Bridgette Mann (Canadensis, Pa./Wallenpaupack), who will at the top of the scouting report for the Lady Royals' opponents, and redshirt junior Julia Gantz (Havertown, Pa./Archbishop Carroll) who will miss the entire season with an injury.
"Our captains have big shoes to fill in replacing last year's seniors Katie Broderick and Katie Feehery, who were outstanding for us," said Woodruff of his captain. "We've challenged them to take on these new roles and are confident they will provide the leadership to make sure we are doing the right things both on and off the court."
"Bridgette's accomplishments to this point in her career speak for themselves, but she does things the right way and leads by example," Woodruff said about Mann, who was an All-American and All-Region selection last season after being named the Landmark Conference Player of the Year.
"Julia possess and outstanding basketball IQ and she's the ultimate team player," Woodruff added about Gantz. "We're going to miss having her on the court, but the way she has responded to her latest injury speaks volumes for who she is as person. She wants to be around the team to help in any way she can and her teammates really look up to her."
On the court, Mann returns to high expectations as she was recently named a preseason first team All-American by d3hoops.com. Mann was a WBCA Honorable Mention All-American and a Third Team All-American pick by d3hoops.com last season after averaging 15.3 points per game while shooting 38.3 percent from three point range and 86 percent from the free throw line. She needs just two more three-pointers to break the Lady Royals' all-time record for threes.
"Bridgette's obviously been outstanding for us over her first three seasons," said Woodruff. "She has a knack for stepping her game up even another notch in clutch moments, and we certainly hope she continues on that path. She's going to draw a lot of attention from other teams, but we have enough talent that we don't need her to score 25 points every game."
One of those most talented weapons in junior guard Makenzie Mason (Doylestown, Pa./Central Bucks West) who was named Second Team All-Region by d3hoops.com and was a First Team All-Landmark Conference honoree after a breakout sophomore season. Mason averaged 9.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while contributing 95 assists, 32 blocks, and 24 steals to rank second on the team in all five categories.
Scranton's two other returning starters are junior guard Emily Sheehan (Dunmore, Pa./Dunmore) and junior forward Sofia Recupero (Whitestone, N.Y./Saint Francis Prep). Sheehan started all 30 games last season and averaged 7.1 points per game while collecting a team-leading 27 steals. Recupero, who is expected to miss the first few games of the fall semester as she recovers from an injury, averaged 7.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in 28 starts as a sophomore.
"Our returners have already shown what they are capable of, but we're challenging them to do even more this season," remarked Woodruff of Mason, Sheehan, and Recupero. "We expect them to continue to play well on both ends of the court and to also help bring the younger players along."
Also returning this season for the Lady Royals are junior guard Lily Warhaftig (Harlem, N.Y./Poly Prep), sophomore guards Ava Gammo (East Hanover, N.J./Hanover Park) and Taylor Rodriguez (Wayne, N.J./Wayne Hills), and sophomore forward Chloe Burns (Philadelphia, Pa./Springside Chestnut Hill Academy).
Warhaftig played in all 30 games last season and averaged 13.3 minutes per contest. Gammo averaged 12.2 minutes in 20 appearances, Rodriguez played in 17 games and averaged 11.2 minutes, and Burns averaged 7.6 minutes in 13 games.
Woodruff believes that the Lady Royals' depth, which will include both returners and newcomers, will be one of the team's biggest strength's this season. "We have talented players who can come off the bench to help us both on the perimeter and in the paint," he said. "We're going to utilize that depth right from the start of the season as we try to get back to full health, and we're going to need it against our strong conference opponents."
Those newcomers are six freshman who the Lady Royals welcome for the 2018-19 season in guards Kayla Farney (Webster, N.Y./Webster-Thomas), Carly Heineman (Abington, Pa./Gwynedd Mercy Academy), Hannah Kowalski (Clarks Summit, Pa./Abington Heights), and Emily Shurina (East Meadow, N.Y./East Meadow), along with forwards Danielle McCurdy (Philadelphia, Pa./Archbishop Ryan) and Erin Worzel (Hawley, Pa./Wallenpaupack).
Woodruff is encouraged by what he has seen from his rookie class. "This is a very talented group of freshmen who are all with us for a reason. They all have the ability to become see important minutes for us and become valuable contributors, but the challenge with new players, as it always is, is for them to pick up on our offensive and defensive systems while adjusting to the college game."
A challenging non-conference schedule that features five games against teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season awaits Scranton to prepare the Lady Royals for what promises to be a highly competitive Landmark Conference slate.
"I believe the Landmark Conference is as balanced as it has ever been in the last four seasons and it is going to be one of the best conferences on the country this year," said Woodruff about the league, which saw both Scranton and Juniata advance in the NCAA Tournament last winter. "We're going to bring our best to every game if we expect to win."
Many of Scranton's non-conference opponents this season were, like the Lady Royals, chosen as their conference's preseason favorite. Scranton will hardly have to leave the city limits for its first nine games this season, opening the year with three games at nearby Marywood before hosting their next six contests.
The Lady Royals tip off the 2018-19 season with the Cross County Challenge next weekend, taking on King's on Friday, Nov. 16 at 6 p.m. at Marywood followed by a tilt against Wilkes the next day.
"The Cross County Challenge is a great way to start the season," said Woodruff of this year's tip-off tournament. "There's always a lot of energy and excitement at the start of the season and these are good games between local opponents."
Scranton will play a third straight game at Marywood on Tues., Nov. 20 against the host Pacers before kicking off a six-game home stand beginning with their home opener on Monday, Nov. 26 against DeSales starting at 7 p.m. in the John Long Center.
During the home stand, Scranton opens its conference slate against Goucher on Saturday, Dec. 1 against Goucher at 1 p.m. and concludes the run with the Hilton Scranton Poinsettia Classic on Sat.-Sun., Dec. 15-16 against Ithaca and Capital.
The Lady Royals hit the road for a trio of non-conference games before the New Year before turning the calendar over with 13 Landmark Conference games in January and February to close the regular season.