The faces have changed, but the goals remain the same for the IUP Crimson Hawks.
Only four players remain on the IUP women’s basketball roster that were around for the Hawks’ consecutive trips to the NCAA Division II Final Four.
“Go one more from last year,” senior forward Lexi Griggs replied when asked about her team’s goal for this season.
IUP is coming off the best two-season run in school history, twice winning 30 games during back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight as the Atlantic Region champion and reaching the national semifinals both times. The Hawks added a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship, their third in four years, to the haul last year.
“Win the conference, make it back to the Final Four and win the national championship,” senior guard Natalie Myers said when asked the same question about goals.
IUP returns two starters — Griggs and Myers — and one other player — Courtney Alexander — from last year’s regular rotation of eight, as well as redshirt junior forward Maura D’Anna, who missed all but five games of last season following knee surgery. The four members of the sophomore class showed promise as freshmen. One Division I transfer, Justina Mascaro, looks to make an immediate impact. And to run the show, the Hawks are counting on a freshman point guard to mature as the season progresses.
Regardless of the inexperience, IUP is ranked ninth nationally and picked to win the PSAC West.
“Here’s the interesting thing with our team,” seventh-year coach Tom McConnell said. “The very first day of practice, I had a practice plan, and about halfway through practice I went over and put it on the scorers’ table and said this is a plan for two or three weeks down the road, we’re not ready for this, and we’ve got to back up. Even though we spent the fall together working on skills and training, we have a long way to go.”
That’s not to say the Hawks can’t get to where they want to go. They have to replace one of top trios in school history — Carolyn Appleby, Lauren Wolosik and Brittany Robinson — but the new group has potential.
“We’re starting to get better and figure things out a little bit,” McConnell said, “but we still have a long, long way to go.”
THE SENIORS: There are only two, the 5-foot-10 Griggs and 6-foot Myers.
Griggs showed flashes of brilliance last year, like when she scored 24 points against Clarion and 28 against California in back-to-back games. She scored in double figures in nine of the last 14 games, averaged 10.9 points and 5.3 rebounds and shot 58 percent from the floor.
Now IUP needs her to do those things every night.
“There’s nobody that works harder than Lexi,” McConnell said. “She just is everything that a college player embodies that’s right: great worker, positive attitude, team-first player, so humble, so coachable. So I root for her. I want her to have success. She has gone from playing very little as a freshman to a role player as a sophomore to a key contributor and starter as a junior to now a leader. … I just think she’s ready to really put all her experience into a really positive senior year.”
“I’m just trying to step up and improve myself and do what I can to help the team succeed,” Griggs said. “I just need to bring it every game, each day, attack and be aggressive.”
Myers begins her second season at IUP after transferring from Division I Youngstown State. She averaged 7.2 points and 5.7 rebounds and shot 39 percent from 3-point range but only 40 percent overall.
“She is a very capable scorer,” McConnell said. “Last year sometimes she was content to let Carolyn and Lauren and Brittany shine, so now the transition for her is, this is your time, your senior year, you are such a hard worker, such a team-first player, but now you have to step up and be that go-to player. I want her to be more aggressive. I want her to think big and hit open shots when they’re there and play free and with a lot of confidence.”
“I just have to make sure I’m ready to shoot, don’t hesitate, just let it fly,” she said.
Both are captains.
“Lexi and Natalie were very instrumental in our team’s success so those two know what it takes to win, they know what it takes to prepare to win on a daily basis, and they’ve been great examples to our younger players,” McConnell said.
THE JUNIORS: D’Anna is going to be the go-to player in the post. The 6-foot redshirt junior averaged 9.2 points and 5.2 rebounds and shot a team-high 63 percent from the floor in a small sample size of five games.
Mascaro, a 5-11 Bethel Park product, left Delaware midway through last season and took a spot on IUP’s bench. She played in all 43 games during her career at Delaware, averaging 5.0 points and 2.2 rebounds as a sophomore and 3.6 points and 2.3 rebounds as a freshman.
“What she brings is power and aggression and a fearless mentality,” Griggs said.
“Justina plays hard,” Myers said. “She’s kind of like Carolyn with that non-stop engine. She gets after it on offense and defense, she can get to the hoop and shoot the 3. She does a little bit of everything.”
McConnell said, “Both play really hard. Maura gives us that inside presence, and she’s working on becoming a good back-to-the-basket player. She plays hard and rebounds. And Justina is probably our most versatile guard to this point. She can drive it, and she’s a good shooter.”
Alexander emerged as IUP’s most consistent 3-point shooter late in the season. She went 7-for-11 in the two games at the Elite Eight and finished at a team-high 44 percent.
“With a few guards leaving it opens up a spot for me to come in and use my shot more,” she said. “I’ve been working on my 3 a lot, and that’s my strong suit. I came into this year thinking about those moments last year when I did really well. I’m just thinking about catching and shooting and bringing that into practice every day and having confidence in my shot.”
“She is an exceptional shooter,” McConnell said. “She had a great end of the year to her season and shot the ball well for us and played well in the NCAA Tournament so I look for her to do more of that. She is just a tremendous shooter.”
THE SOPHOMORES: Most freshmen usually look like, well, freshmen, during their first season of college ball.
IUP’s quartet of Teirra Preston, Alana Cardona, Rajah Fink and Mikayla Lovelace did not. They all had significant moments, especially Preston, who came on when D’Anna went down or Robinson ran into foul trouble.
“All of them have the ability to contribute,” McConnell said. “Last year’s experience helped them. We’re just looking for more consistency. They just need time to grow into who they can be.”
Preston, a 6-footer from York, averaged 2.3 points and 2.2 rebounds and played important minutes in three postseason games.
She backs up D’Anna to give IUP a physical presence in the low post.
“We both have room to grow,” Preston said. “We both know we have room for improvement and things we need to work on.”
New to the mix is Kiara Wade, a 6-3 forward from Farrell who played her freshman season at Wheeling Jesuit before giving up basketball and transferring to IUP. She met with the team late last season and decided to five basketball another shot.
“I don’t know how much early she can be a key contributor,” McConnell said, “but at some point this season she’s going to impact our team in some games in a very positive way.”
THE FRESHMEN: There are two: Maria Cerro, a 5-6 Bethel Park product, and Josie Smith, a 6-1 forward from New Albany, Ohio.
Cerro, the only true point guard in the program, is going to start. She takes the spot vacated by Appleby, one of the best in school history.
“She has shown that she is capable of doing it,” McConnell said, “so it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out. That’s where we need to really grow and get better and have more consistency from that position. That’s what we’re working toward. One thing I know about Maria is she’s tough as nails. She’s a competitor, a really good ball handler, really good in pick-and-roll situations. As she goes through this and figures out where her spots are to score from, she will gain more confidence. I’m just looking for her to grow throughout the season.”