By Mike McMahon
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — For much of the early years of the 21st century, women’s basketball was the premiere sport on Merrimack College’s campus.
Led by all-time leading scorer Joelle Martin, who graduated in 2006 and is now playing pro overseas, the Warriors were regulars in the NCAA tournament and even made a trip to the Final Four.
After Martin’s graduation and the departure of former head coach Ann McInerney, who took a Division 1 job at Maine, the program would limp in the next six years, going 45-115.
But now, that all appears to be changing.
Under second-year head coach Monique LeBlanc, the Warriors are 11-7 through 18 games this season, more than doubling last year’s win total despite just hitting February on the calendar.
The Warriors are seventh in the Northeast-10 conference, despite being picked 14th out of 16 teams in the conference’s coaches’ poll in the preseason, and are on pace for their largest win total since 2005, when the season ended in Arkansas at the Division 2 Final Four. In fact, the Warriors need just two more wins in their final eight games to reach that mark.
“I think maybe our players had a bit of a chip on their shoulder when they saw the poll, that’s natural for college athletes,” said LeBlanc, who was a two-time captain at Bucknell during her playing days as well as a star at Bishop Feehan on the south shore. “For the players, they think, ‘how dare anyone underestimate us?’ But no one knows anything about us. I told our players that they didn’t know how hard we worked in the summer. All they know is that we finished 15th last year and we graduated our top scorer.”
The Warriors had just five wins last season, in LeBlanc’s first year.
“Most times first-year head coaches will struggle,” LeBlanc said. “I’ve seen it happen to a lot of colleagues, it’s just what happens. But, like anyone, I always think when I get my shot, I’m turning it around in like, week one. We all knew that the big picture was year two, three, four and moving forward.”
Last week, the Warriors dropped a heartbreaking one-point loss in Albany to St. Rose. For a team that’s still experiencing some growing pains, it shouldn’t have left such a sour taste in the Warriors’ mouths, but it did.
Last Thursday and Friday, LeBlanc said she pushed her team a little harder in practice in response to the loss.
“That one stung,” she said. “Our A.D. (Dean O’Keefe) came up to me and said, ‘you’re still 11-5, if I told you eight months go,’ and I’m like ‘I know!’ but as well as this season has gone, it’s still early and we know we have to continue getting better.”
Getting in experience
At times last season, there were just nine healthy players and four freshmen were thrust into important roles early.
At one point, LeBlanc said, there was just three players on the bench who were medically cleared for game action.
“The experience for the freshmen, this year’s sophomores, was great,” LeBlanc said. “But, there were times that maybe we had someone not playing so well and I wanted to get a substitution there, and I look down the bench and we didn’t have another healthy player at that position, so that player would have to stay in.”
She continued, “The experience for them was great, they have more experience than maybe any other group of sophomores in the league, but there were some learning experiences along the way.”
Finding a theme
From her first day on the job, LeBlanc wanted to find a theme that fit with her program. Last season, she picked “hard work,” and it’s stuck.
“We work harder than anyone else,” she said, “that’s it. We just do. We might not be more talented than the team across the court, but we will outwork them. We do that.”
It’s helped make the Warriors one of the toughest defenses in the Northeast-10.
Their points-per-game defense is only ranked 10th in the league, but the Warriors have limited teams to just 38.8 percent shooting, which is just two percentage points off the league lead. They’ve limited teams to 29 percent from beyond the arc, which is fourth best in the NE-10 and their 19.1 turnovers per game is also fourth in the league.
“We need to be good on defense all the time,” said senior Kelly Schatzlein, who leads the NE-10 with 11.2 rebounds per game. “I think that we’ve done a really good job working hard everywhere on the court. That’s been the biggest reason (for our improvement).”
Senior Katie Ganser, along with Schatzlein, has seen the program evolve first hand.
“We all know that we’re moving in the right direction,” she said. “We have really good younger players and they’re working really hard, so the momentum will keep up.”
Whether it’s been as a player or a coach, LeBlanc has had success wherever she’s been. And from what’s transpired in less than two seasons on the job, there’s no reason to think Merrimack will be any different.
“One day at a time,” she said, “but we know we’re moving in the right direction.”
Coming back Second year head coach Monique LeBlanc has Merrimack College back on the winning path after the program became derailed following a trip to the Final Four in 2005. Year Wins Losses Playoffs 2004-05 29 6 Lost in NCAA semifinals 2005-06 8 22 Did not qualify 2006-07 7 21 Did not qualify 2007-08 9 19 Did not qualify 2008-09 9 19 Lost in NE-10 First Round 2009-10 12 17 Lost in NE-10 Quarterfinals 2010-11 10 17 Lost in NE-10 First Round 2011-12 5 21 Did not quality 2012-13 11 7 TBD