Stacked Senior Class Ready to Defend NCAA Title
Amherst has an NCAA title to defend in 2012. (Photo by Tim Fuller)
Losing the Division III Player of the Year and the team’s two leading rebounders will obviously present a challenge to head coach G.P. Gromacki, but the Lord Jeffs will need to focus on replacing the consistency that the four members of the Class of 2011 brought to the program. Jaci Daigneault ’11, Sarah Leyman ’11, Kristyn Dunleavy ’11 and Courtney Long ’11 were 120-9 in their four years, helping Amherst earn the program’s first three NESCAC titles and the first four appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Amherst may wind up starting five seniors, as the Class of 2012 features six players who have made three Final Four appearances and have posted an overall record of 93-6. Last year the Lord Jeffs led the nation in scoring margin (+27.7) by putting up 77.2 points and allowing 49.5 per outing, but Amherst lost 28.1 points and 16.8 rebounds per game to graduation. Departing from the starting lineup are Daigneault and Leyman, who combined for 2,465 points and 1,520 rebounds in four years.
Ranked No. 1 in the D3hoops.com Preseason Poll, Amherst will have a target on its back from the get-go. With three other teams receiving multiple first-place votes and fellow Northeast powerhouse Babson ranked fifth in Division III, the Lord Jeffs’ road back to the national semifinals will not be as smooth as they made it out to be last year. “We can’t expect to get to the Final Four,” Gromacki says. “We have to earn everything. The keys for us will be depth and consistency. Our seniors need to step up even more because of what we lost last year.”
Highlighting the Class of 2012 is D3hoops.com Preseason All-America selection Caroline Stedman. One of this year’s three captains, Stedman burst onto the scene when she was named the NESCAC’s Player of the Year and earned All-America recognition as a sophomore. After averaging 12.3 points per game during the 2009-10 season, she missed a portion of her junior year due to injury but worked her way back into the starting lineup, finishing with 10.8 points per outing as an All-NESCAC selection.
Stedman is an incredibly athletic player who can take over a game at will. She has the ability to drive to the hoop with either hand but can also shoot from long range, notably hitting all five of her three-point attempts against Tufts. Stedman led the team in scoring seven times last year, including against Christopher Newport and Washington University in the national semifinals and finals, combining for 37 points while shooting better than 50 percent that weekend. She scored 26 points against Bates and 23 versus Bowdoin, marking two of her 15 double-digit performances.
Caroline Stedman '12 is a preseason All-America selection.
Forming an incredible one-two punch with Stedman is Kim Fiorentino, who will also serve as a captain this year. Slowing down one often frees up the other, as Fiorentino shares Stedman’s quickness and athleticism as a player who can hurt teams in several ways. Last year she established herself as a shut-down defender, notably keeping the nation’s leading scorer at bay during the NCAA semifinals.
Fiorentino’s defense played a vital role during the team’s championship run, but her offense is just as impressive. She averaged 7.7 points per game as a junior and ranked in the top four on the team in rebounds (3.6), assists (2.5), steals (1.4) and blocks (0.9) per game. She finished fourth in the NESCAC in three-point field goal percentage (.415), going 4-for-5 from long range at Wesleyan and 5-for-6 against ECSU. Fiorentino was phenomenal down the stretch, averaging 13.5 points in the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament and 2.5 blocks in her final four games.
Amherst’s third captain is three-year starting point guard Shannon Finucane, a 2010 All-NESCAC selection who averaged 7.0 points per game last season. She is already the program’s all-time leader in steals and ranks fourth in career assists, while she is just ahead of Stedman in the race to 1,000 points. As a junior Finucane had eight games with five or more assists and 14 games with at least three steals.
Last year Finucane led Amherst in attempts from behind the arc and twice hit five threes in a game, as she joins Fiorentino and Stedman as the team’s biggest three-point threats. Finucane is exceptional at driving into the lane and shoots 75 percent from the line, notably hitting all seven of her free throws in the NCAA Tournament. She put up a season-high 21 points at Keene State and can score at will, but she also brings a strong presence as the most vocal leader on the team.
Jackie Renner could take on a starting role as someone who complements Finucane extremely well. Renner gives the Jeffs a different look at the point as a 6’0 guard, as she has proven to be a difficult matchup for most teams. She played a pivotal role in the 2011 NCAA Tournament by handling full-court pressure with ease, demonstrating necessary composure during the semifinals and finals.
Not one of the team’s significant scoring threats, Renner attempted more than five shots in only five games last year. Still, she is one of the team’s best at getting to the hoop and has great court vision, as she averaged 3.3 assists per game in the NCAA Tournament with a 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Renner’s defense has also stood out, with most opposing guards unable to break her down.
Kim Fiorentino '12 has become Amherst's shut-down defender.
Also looking to move into a starting role is Lem Atanga McCormick, who will need to help fill the void left by Daigneault and Leyman in the paint. Atanga McCormick has averaged 9.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game during three phenomenal years with the Lord Jeffs, notably accounting for 10.9 points, 5.7 boards and 1.7 blocks per outing while shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor as a sophomore.
With the ability to do anything from posting up to hitting baseline jumpers and three-pointers, Atanga McCormick provides another difficult matchup scenario for opposing teams. She ranks third on the school’s all-time blocks list and is next in line to reach 1,000 career points (877). As a junior she knocked down 83.3 percent of her free throws but got to the line only 30 times, which is something she will need to keep in mind after the team lost 42.3 percent of its free throw attempts to graduation.
Rounding out Amherst’s sensational senior class is Livia Rizzo, who will join the team on a full-time basis after she wraps up her duties with the school’s women’s soccer program. Rizzo provides the Lord Jeffs with incredible athleticism off the bench, as she stands out with her rebounding ability and is arguably the fastest player on the team.
Amherst will have reliable options off the bench at the guard position with Marcia Voigt ’13, Jasmine Hardy ’13 and Sally Marx ’14 returning to the team. Voigt was named the 2010 NESCAC Rookie of the Year and has stepped into a starting role when called upon, notably recording a pair of 20-point performances last year as someone who can take charge of a game. In addition to averaging 5.9 points per game as a sophomore, Voigt recorded three or more assists nine times.
Joining Voigt as an option at point guard is Hardy, who scored a season-high 11 points against Husson in the NCAA Tournament. Hardy played her best basketball down the stretch, hitting 10 of her final 17 three-point attempts of the season for an impressive .588 shooting percentage. Marx, meanwhile, came to Amherst as a promising guard but was forced to sit out the 2010-11 season due to injury, as she will look to get back on track with the Lord Jeffs as another reliable guard.
Marcia Voigt '13 was named the 2010 NESCAC Rookie of the Year.
Along with Atanga McCormick, Bridget Crowley ’13 will need to take on a more prominent role in the paint. Crowley is a crafty post player whose quickness will be tough to match up against. She shot 38.1 percent from the floor as a first-year but bumped that to 48.8 percent as a sophomore. The 6’1 forward averaged 6.2 points during the first 10 games of the 2010-11 season and finished at 3.9 points in 8.7 minutes per outing, but she could see a significant increase in both scoring and playing time this season.
Although Amherst lost the majority of its post play to graduation, Coach Gromacki will have much more size to work with this season. Julia Weatherly ’14 is a 6’0 forward who transferred from Division I Monmouth University, while Megan Robertson (6’2), Uju Momah (6’0) and Savannah Holness (5’11) will look to contribute as first-years. “It’s a big, strong, fast group,” Gromacki says of his newcomers. “I’m excited to see how they adjust to our team. There are definitely some players who could contribute right away.”
The Lord Jeffs’ 49-game winning streak in LeFrak Gymnasium will be put to the test when three good teams come to town for the Amherst Tip-Off Tournament. After taking on Norwich University (16-10 in 2010-11) on Saturday, Nov. 19, the Jeffs will face either Saint Lawrence (19-6)—the preseason favorite in the Liberty League—or Mount Saint Mary, which qualified for the 2011 NCAA Tournament and finished with a 26-3 record.
Amherst will return from its two-week Interterm break by traveling to Las Vegas for the D3hoops.com Classic. Out west the Jeffs will face Concordia (Wisc.) and WPI, which went a combined 38-17 a year ago. After a rematch with Kean University on Jan. 17, Amherst will tackle the bulk of its conference schedule during a tough seven-game road trip that spans only 16 days. Five NESCAC teams finished with a winning percentage of .750 or better last year, as Colby, Bowdoin and Williams are once again expected to be some of the strongest teams in the region.