By Aidan Gagnon / Sports Information Staff
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- If there is one thing that Eastern Connecticut State University head women’s basketball coach Denise Bierly has become accustomed to, it is winning.
Entering her 25th season in 2018/19, Bierly has won a total of 448 times in her career and is the winningest active women’s basketball coach in the Little East Conference. Bierly has recorded 11 seasons of at least 20 victories, coached ten NCAA tournament qualifiers, developed ten All-Americas, and played in a Division III national championship game.
In the last five seasons, the women’s basketball team have won an average 18 games a season, three conference regular-season titles, back-to-back LEC tournament championships and reached three NCAA tournaments (one on an at-large basis).
Although those numbers stand out, last season wasn’t the best for the Warriors. With Bierly missing the first half of the season for personal reasons, the team finished fourth in the conference – six games behind undefeated champion UMass Dartmouth – and wrapped up with a 12-15 season overall.
Despite featuring a thin team which offered minimal depth, however, Eastern finished strong following Bierly’s return to the bench, downing the University of Southern Maine on Seniors’ Day to gain a first-round LEC tournament home game, where the Warriors avenged a seven-point road loss to Western Connecticut less than a week earlier with a nine-point home victory over the Colonials that vaulted them into the tournament semifinals.
In fact, following a 3-10 start, Eastern won nine of its next 13 to advance to at least the LEC tournament semifinals for the 20th time under the current head coach.
When asked about the unusual record last year, Bierly pointed out that “the kids are really focused on turning things around this year. Last year was a weird year for us as far as our record -- we normally aren’t below .500 -- so the kids are ready to change that this year.”
The Warriors return four starters and all but one of their key reserves this year, and are ranked fourth among nine teams in the LEC pre-season poll behind UMass Dartmouth, UMass Boston and Southern Maine – unsurprisingly the exact order of last year’s final standings.
Every year, players come and go, which is the beauty of college basketball. Each player is unique and offers something to the team that someone else might not have. Last year’s Eastern graduated two seniors in Emily Menendez and Kelly Reardon. Reardon was the main point guard last year starting every game while excelling at passing and defending. She led the team in assists (109) and steals (46) on the year. Although Menendez only started one game last year, she provided size and marksmanship (59.5 FG percentage) off the bench in an average of 10.5 minutes.
This year, the Warriors have four regulars returning in junior guards Julie Jordan (Sterling) and Lizzy Cretella (Cheshire), and post players Kelsey Santagata (Stamford) and Mya Villard (Cromwell). Santagata is a senior, Villard a junior.
At right: Returning first-team All-LEC post player Mya Villard.
After coming off the bench in 28 games as a freshman, Cretella was lost last year with a season-ending injury in the ninth game of the year.
At 5-foot-4 inches, Jordan was named to the LEC All-Defensive team last year as a first-year starter, averaging 6.4 points and 1.6 steals and shooting 47.3 percent from the floor and 78.8 from the foul line.
The LEC’s Rookie-of-the-Year as a freshman, Villard had another stellar season last year as a first-team all-conference selection. She led the team (and shared the conference lead) in scoring (19.9), rebounding (8.3) and field goal percentage (52.6).
Santagata, the only senior this year and a co-captain, will be looking to repeat the defensive success down low this year. Last year, Santagata averaged 10.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game.
If healthy, Cretella will see significantly playing time this year after suffering an ACL tear last year. At the time of last year’s injury, she was averaging 12.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in an average of 33.9 minutes. Getting her co-captain into the lineup is a huge priority for Bierly, who describes Cretella as “probably our go-to leader on the team, which is easier to do when she is on the court and not the sideline.”
After averaging less than ten minutes per game as a freshman, junior lefty Sabrina LeMere (North Branford) stepped into the starting lineup when Cretella went down last year and averaged 12.0 points, 2.8 assists and 3.3 rebounds in an average of 30.3 minutes.
Sophomore Diana Wnuk (Bristol), and junior Tara Prochorena (Colchester) are the other two returning forwards from last year, with sophomore Bella Scarpa (Braintree, MA) returning in the backcourt.
Both Wnuk and Prochorena played important roles off the bench last year, with Wnuk averaging 10.6 points with an 81.8 free throw percentage. Prochorena averaged only 5.2 minutes but saw increasing time as the season wore on.
With a thin roster last year, Wnuk and Prochorena both had extended playing time and were the go-to on the bench from the forward position partly due to injured players. Bierly noticed this year that both players have gotten better because of unexpected playing time last year and expects them to have significant roles in games this year.
On a guard-heavy team – numbering ten on a 16-player roster -- Bierly recruited two freshmen All-State forwards to strengthen an already strong core in the paint. Aiyana Ward (Waterbury), and two-sport athlete Anna Barry (Andover) could play significant roles as first-year players. In the fall, Barry was named LEC Rookie-of-the-Year, first-team All-LEC and LEC tournament MVP for the conference champion Warriors.
Most of the freshman guards are expected to come off the bench and provide much needed depth that wasn’t really there last year. Bierly raves about how talented this group is and how she expects each of them to play a role this year. She states that the majority of them are very skilled, but need time to adjust to the college level of basketball.
Newcomers at the guard position are Julia Bentrewicz (Hicksville, NY), Raven Cody (Wolcott), Julie Keckler (Trumbull), Danielle O’Brien (Rockland, MA), Jenna Serrantino (Cromwell), and Marissa Shirshac (Hampton).
Eastern opens Friday at 7 p.m. against Roger Williams University at the Trinity College Tip-Off Tournament. The first home game of the season will be November 25 at 3 p.m. against Williams College at Geissler Gymnasium, and the LEC opener is scheduled for Nov. 28 at Rhode Island College.