2019-2020 Patriot League preview: Can Bucknell hold onto the top spot?

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 16: Head coach Sue Troyan of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks looks on during a women's college basketball game against the American University Eagles at Bender Arena on February 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 16: Head coach Sue Troyan of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks looks on during a women's college basketball game against the American University Eagles at Bender Arena on February 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /
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Lafayette Leopards
Last season: 8-23 (2-16, 10th)
Predicted finish this season: 9th

Key returners (last season’s stats)
F- Natalie Kucowski, 6’3, JR: 15.0 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 2.9 APG, led team in assists (84), steals (48), and blocks (71), 31 starts, 30.4 MPG, Second Team All-Patriot League, Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, Patriot League All-Defensive Team
G- Drew Freeland, 5’8, JR: 9.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 41.5% FG, 38 3PTs, 30 starts, 29.2 MPG

F-Makaila Wilson, 6’0, SO: 5.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 31 starts, 24.1 MPG

G-Nicole Johnson, 5’6, SO: 3.5 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 29 starts, 26.7 MPG

F-Alexis Santarelli, 6’2, SR: (did not play last season due to injury) 8.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 11 starts, 18.0 MPG (stats from the 2017-2018 season)

Biggest losses (last season’s stats)
G- Olivia Martino, 5’10: 9.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG, team-leading 40 3PTs, 37.0% 3PT FG, 27 starts, 29.8 MPG, (transferred to Sacred Heart University)
G- Alex Cantwell, 5’10: 6.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, second on team in steals with 36, 6 starts, 27.4 MPG (graduated)

G- Shanell Haskins, 5’9, (Bowie, MD), FR:  Point guard who can push tempo and get to the rim in transition. A 2019 McDonald’s All-American nominee, helped Capital Christian Academy to the NACA championship.
G- Jess Booth, 5’8, (Owings Mill, MD), FR: Point guard who is a scoring threat in the mid-range and at the rim. A 2019 McDonald’s All-American nominee, missed her senior season at the McDonogh School in 2018-2019 due to a torn ACL. Averaged 12.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 4.0 APG as a junior.
F- Reilly Campbell, 6’2, (Wallingford, CT), FR:  Forward with ball handling ability who can impact a game on both ends. Good interior defender who is capable of defending on perimeter. Averaged 13.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 3.0 APG as a senior. Three-time NEPSAC All-Star selection at Loomis-Chaffee, earned All-State Honorable Mention as a freshman while at Lyman Hall High School.

Head Coach: Kia Damon-Olson, 3rd season

Record at Lafayette: 19-42

Career NCAA record: 19-42

When you’re re-building a program, ups and downs come with the territory.  Coach Damon-Olson has brought new energy and a culture change to the Leopards but that rollercoaster ride hasn’t slowed heading into season three of the turnaround.

Damon-Olson has 19 years of coaching experience at the D1 level but this is her first head coaching job. She’s had stops at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Fairleigh Dickinson, UMass, Penn State, and Cincinnati. While the veteran coach has directed a successful shift at Lafayette, the results in the win column have been slow to come.

The learning curve can be especially steep when taking over a traditionally struggling program. Last year, the team finished the regular season on an 11-game losing streak before eclipsing Army in the Patriot League tournament opener. The good news is that Damon-Olson continues to put her team in position to win. She’ll need to grow her young team again this season to get the results they’re aiming for in Easton.

Key non-conference games:
Nov. 8- at Binghamton
Nov. 13- at St. John’s
Nov. 17- v. Duquense
Dec. 20- at Seton Hall

Outlook: Lafayette has made positive strides since Damon-Olson arrived. The former Penn State assistant is moving the program in the right direction. Last year’s full slate produced eight losses by five points or less—a sign that a more competitive Leopard squad is emerging and may be on the verge of breaking through more often in the win column this year. But the pressure is on to get over the hump this season.

The transfer of shooting guard Olivia Martino to Sacred Heart University might hurt on the court early, but this is a young group that conference teams may not want to overlook as the season develops. Junior post-player Natalie Kucowski anchors the squad, and if Coach Damon-Olson can find another consistent scoring threat to take the pressure off, Lafayette will continue to find itself in winnable games. Forward Alexis Santarelli returns from injury to add depth to the front court. But they’ll need to get production from their freshmen newcomers to avoid a last-place finish again—and that might be too much to expect.

Best Case Scenario: A Leopard team coming off a season of some hard-luck losses grabs a few early season wins to build confidence and chemistry.  Kucowski takes another step forward and makes her case as one of the best players in the league. The trio of freshmen are quick studies and help create much-needed depth and the team avoids a last-place finish.

Worst Case Scenario: An early-season losing skid takes the air out of a hopeful season and the team finds itself having to rely too much on Kucowski on both ends of the floor. Struggles to find consistency on the offense end take a toll on the defensive effort and the challenges of conference play prove too much to overcome.