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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Lauren Manis. Mark Seliger Photography/Holy Cross Athletics
Lauren Manis. Mark Seliger Photography/Holy Cross Athletics /

Holy Cross Crusaders

Last season: 18-13 (9-9, 5th)
Predicted finish this season: 2nd

Key returners (last season’s stats)
F- Lauren Manis, 6’1, SR: 16.8 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 41.0% FG, 31.4 MPG, 31 starts, First Team All-Patriot League
G- Avery LaBarbera, 5’6, SO: 11.3PPG, 4.2 RPG, 56 made 3pt FGs, 34.3 MPG, 30 starts, Patriot League Rookie of the Year, Third Team All-Patriot League

C-Megan Swords, 6’3, SR: 10.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 47.7 FG%, 27.1 MPG, 30 starts

G-Madalyn Smith, 5’8, SR: 6.9 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.8 APG, led team with 118 assists, 31.7 MPG, 31 starts

Biggest losses (last season’s stats)
F- Maggie Locke, 6’1: 8 games played, 2.8 MPG (graduated)
C- Miranda Nixon, 6’3: 14 games played, 4.4 MPG (graduated)
G- Mia Mazza, 5’8: Appeared in one game off the bench (did not return to team)

G- Addisyn Cross, 5’7, (Fairview, PA), FR: Combo-guard who played primarily point guard in high school. Can direct the offense and is a threat to score. Led Villa Maria Academy to four District 10 championships. Named All-State Second Team and First Team District 10 as a senior.
G- Kerry Flaherty, 5’7: (Saratoga Springs), FR: 1,000 point scorer for Saratoga Springs High School. Averaged 15 PPG, 5 RPG, 5 APG in her senior season.  Named 5th team New York State as a senior and was four times a Union Times All-Star.

Head Coach: Ann McInerney, 1st full season as interim head coach, 12th season overall

Record at Holy Cross: Note: was named interim coach on January 31, 2019; team produced a 7-4 record

Career NCAA record: 174-116 (23-34 at D1 University of Maine, 119-65 at D2 Merrimack College, 32-17 at D3 Nichols College)

Holy Cross enters the season as one of the most talented teams in the league.  It also begins a new chapter with the departure of long-time head coach Bill Gibbons who led them for 34 seasons.

McInerney took the helm last year when Holy Cross suspended Gibbons mid-season, sliding over one chair from her associate head coach seat. The college officially parted ways with Gibbons in March and gave her the interim role for the full 2019-2020 season.

Familiarity should serve the program well. McInerney joined the staff in 2008, knows the players and new recruits, and retains two staffers from last year. She’s known success as a head coach, having led D2 Merrimack to consecutive Final Four appearances. Can the program move ahead under a coach with an interim tag? Will the drama surrounding Gibbon’s controversial exit linger?

There will be plenty of tests to pass and more questions to answer, but McInerney has been down this road before. Don’t bet against her guiding the Crusaders to a championship run.

Key non-conference games:
Nov. 9- at Illinois
Nov. 13– v. Boston College
Dec. 8- at UMass
Dec.30-  at Stetson

Outlook: The Crusaders are one of the most talented teams in the league and are capable of bringing the championship back to Worcester. Lauren Manis is one of the best players in the league and she’s joined by reigning league rookie star, Avery LaBarbera, now a sophomore. Their rotation remains intact and they add two freshman guards with the ability to contribute right away. They are a serious contender for the title. But it hasn’t been smooth sailing at Holy Cross.

Interim head coach McInerney is in her first full season after serving in that capacity for the last 11 games a year ago. She replaced former coach Bill Gibbons who filed a civil lawsuit against Holy Cross in Worcester Superior Court on September 12th in response to his ouster. It is an unusual set of circumstances and it brings questions.

What impact has the shuffling of coaches and departure of Gibbons had on the program? They didn’t lose any recruits this year but has the drama affected the team culture? Holy Cross also hired a new athletic director in May and McInerney is essentially auditioning for the job this season—that’s a lot of pressure for any coach.  How will the staff manage the urgency to produce results and maintain a positive culture?

What’s not in question is that they are a talented and athletic group—and return all starters and regular rotation players. But are they the squad that upset a great Bucknell team, 61-60 in Worcester, or are they the team that lost to Bucknell three weeks later in the playoffs, 66-31?

It’s going to be a wild ride in Worcester this season.  And it may just end with a Patriot League championship. Could be a wicked cool year for Crusader fans.

Best Case Scenario: Manis makes her case for player of the year and helps her team take the step forward to a successful regular season finish near the top of the league. With nearly another conference slate under their belts, fellow seniors Megan Swords and Madalyn Smith join Manis in helping to solidify one of the best line-ups in the conference down the stretch.  LaBarbera improves upon her stellar rookie campaign and the two new recruits contribute to give Holy Cross an explosive bench. The Crusaders get their chance to claim the championship and capitalize. Holy Cross wins its 12th Patriot League title and notably, the first without their former coach who led them to 11.

Worst Case Scenario: A cloud hangs over the team all year and the culture cannot put off-season drama and last year’s controversial coaching change behind them; issues remain. The pressure to have a successful season takes a toll on the coaching staff and things don’t come together for this talented group.  They get upset in an early playoff round and fall short of the championship.