Fresh off a Great Midwest Athletic Conference Championship and its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Div. II National Championship Tournament this past March, the Malone University women’s basketball team will begin its pursuit of another postseason run this Friday, Nov. 17 when it travels to Lake Superior State for the 2017-18 regular season opener.
The Pioneers went 23-7 last season and were 12-2 in the conference. Led by first-year head coach Rick Tice, Malone won 23 of 26 down the stretch, not including a win over Div. I Bowling Green last December. The Pioneers ended the regular season with nine straight victories and then went on to defeat Cedarville and Ursuline in the G-MAC Tournament before falling to eventual National Champion Ashland in the Midwest Regional Quarterfinal.
The Pioneers lost six seniors from that championship team including First Team G-MAC All-Conference selections Rachel Goddard and Hannah McCue. Goddard was a 1,000-point scorer and one of the most efficient point guards in the country, producing a 3.4 assist to turnover ratio (the second-best in DII) while shooting 47.2 percent from the floor. McCue, meanwhile, led the team in steals and blocks and finished fifth in the country in defensive rebounds. Also gone from last year’s squad are Alaina Schwarz, Mackenzie Storlie, Natalie Nickol and Victoria McDuffie.
“Having those experienced seniors making good decisions was very important in those close games down the stretch,” Tice said. “After November, when we got a lead in the fourth quarter, we were able to finish games. Those seniors, after some struggles early, hopefully created a culture of being competitive and being tough and being able to contend for a conference championship and also the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
Coach Tice, entering his second season at the helm, will lean on the example the senior leaders set for the younger players last season as the 2017-18 roster features just five upperclassmen and just two players with more than two career starts. Baylen Dyrlund (Hartville, OH/Lake HS), a Second Team All-Conference performer last season, is the only senior on the team. Dyrlund averaged 12.2 points and 6.4 rebounds and shot a team-best 47.4 percent from the floor. She’ll be expected to take on an even larger role this season as the top returning scorer.
“Baylen’s proved herself to be very good inside,” Tice said. “Her foot work is really good, and she can also step out and shoot the three. Rebounding wise, she does a great job, and her experience is crucial to our success.”
Junior guard Chrissie Vaughan (Stow, OH/Stow HS), who’s started 53 games over the last two seasons, averaged 8.3 points per game last winter. She led the team with 62 three-pointers and is likely to see her role expand this year as well after being the fourth scoring option a season ago.
“Chrissie’s going to take on a different role than she’s had before,” Tice said. “She’s still one of our best defenders, but with the target on her back a little more than last year, she’s going to have to be better offensively to even just get the same results.”
While Vaughan handles the two-guard position, sophomore Holly Groff (Macedonia, OH/Nordonia HS) is expected to take over as the starting point guard, a position Tice thinks she is fully capable of performing. Groff played in all 30 games last season and was named to the G-MAC All-Freshmen Team after averaging 2.9 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. She will have some tough shoes to fill in place of Goddard, who in just three seasons at Malone finished 15th all-time in scoring and fifth in assists.
“Holly played limited minutes last season, but her experience playing in those big games, even though it may have been off the ball, will hopefully carry over to this year,” Tice said. “She had a really good summer and is playing really well in practice, so we’re expecting her to be a very efficient point guard.”
In the Malone front court, junior Naomi Grandison (West Chester, OH/Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy) is expected to transition into a starting role after coming off of the bench the last two seasons, playing in all 57 games over that span. Grandison, a 6’0” forward, averaged 5.0 ppg in 2016-17. She also made 14 threes on the season, none bigger than the game-winner against Ursuline in the G-MAC Championship.
“Hopefully her success in the postseason last year will extend into this season,” Tice said. “Now as a junior, we need her to step in and be more consistent. She could be a really tough matchup with her footwork inside and her ability to shoot the ball outside; we need her to play really well to take the pressure off of Baylen.”
The final starting guard position remains a battle between junior Paiten Strother (Millersburg, OH/West Holmes HS) and sophomore Sydney Wentling (Carey, OH/Carey HS). Both saw playing time as understudies last season.
“Paiten’s athleticism really helps us, especially at the defensive end,” Tice said. “Syd has had a really good summer; she’s put in the time and looks like she’s ready to play. Both have shot the ball well in the preseason.”
Sophomore guards Dani Drayer (Waterford, OH/Waterford HS) and Sydney Foster (Florence, KY/Boone County HS) will provide depth at guard off the bench. Drayer appeared in 27 games last season and knocked down 17 threes. Foster, who appeared in 19 games, is slated to back up Groff at the point.
Battling for minutes at the forward position are junior Keri Hill (Strongsville, OH/Strongsville HS), sophomore Ellen Doyle (Gobles, MI/Gobles HS) and freshman Kiah Powell (North Baltimore, OH/North Baltimore HS). Hill sat out last season after transferring from Cuyahoga Community College, where she averaged nearly 12 points a game as a sophomore. Doyle, who played guard in high school, appeared in 18 games as a reserve forward last season. Powell was a 1,000-point scorer at North Baltimore High School and possesses an exciting skill set, according to Tice.
Among the rest of the Pioneers on the roster contending for playing time are sophomore forwards Marina Rarick (Canal Winchester, OH/Canal Winchester HS) and Katie Brehm (Hamilton, OH/Ross HS) and freshmen Madison Roberts (East Liverpool, OH/Beaver Local HS), Karlee Pezzano (Lisbon, OH/Lisbon David Anderson HS), Alexa Bell (Lisbon, OH/Lisbon David Anderson HS) and Brittany Coonce (Canfield, OH/Canfield HS).
The Pioneer coaching staff is made up of assistants Bill Eddins, Ronni Grandison, Selana Reale and McCue, who begins her first season on the sidelines after starring on the hardwood last season.
“I think we have a great staff,” Tice said. “To have Ronni and Hannah back for a second year, even though one was as a player, gives us a little more consistency. Both of them played at a high level before they came here. Selana is a big part of what we do, especially at the defensive end, and she does an outstanding job in our individual work. And for Bill in his second year, it’s crucial to have that continuity in the staff.”
Defensively last season Malone allowed just 60.9 points a game and had the number-two field goal percentage defense in the Midwest Region at 36.0 percent. “We’ve just got to keep getting better defensively as we did last year. We just need to play good defense and not give up easy baskets,” Tice said.
The Pioneers also ranked second in the G-MAC in rebounds, but without his top rebounder from a season ago, Tice will need his guards to be more aggressive at crashing the boards. “Rebounding early on has been a struggle,” he said. “To be successful, our guards will have to rebound. Holly is really good at rebounding, and Chrissie has the capability of rebounding, but we need to make that a point of emphasis.”
Offensively last season Malone averaged 72.8 points per game and finished seventh in the nation with 9.0 made threes per game. Tice expects the trend to continue, although he would like to see his team be a little more balanced.
“Our biggest strength right now is our ability to score,” he said. “We’ve shot it really well in the preseason and scrimmages, but at times I think we rely on the three too much. We need to get much better at going to the basket and getting to the free throw line.”
The aim for the Pioneers this season remains the same, and that is to get to the G-MAC Tournament and advance to the NCAA Championship. “Our first goal is to get into the G-MAC Tournament,” Tice said. “Whether it’s the one seed or the eight seed, we’ve got to get there first.”
That road won’t be easy as the Pioneers will have a target on their back as the defending champions in league, which added five new teams to the mix. Malone was picked fifth among the 13 teams in a preseason coaches poll. Ursuline and Cedarville, who return virtually intact from a season ago, were picked as the early favorites. Conference newcomers Findlay and Ohio Dominican were voted ahead of the Pioneers while Walsh and Hillsdale slotted below Malone, but each received a first-place vote. Lake Erie, another first-year G-MAC member, returns the GLIAC’s leading scorer.
The Pioneers will begin the season against Lake Superior State in a nonconference battle on Friday before returning to play Northwood next Wednesday, Nov. 22 in their home opener. The rest of the nonconference slate features a pair of games in Tampa, Florida against Florida Tech and the University of Tampa. Malone begins its G-MAC title defense on Nov. 30 against Alderson Broaddus.