Mike Strong, the head coach of The University’s women’s basketball team, goes into every season with a few specific goals in mind: win 20 games, the conference title and an NCAA bid and have fun doing it.
The Lady Royals are ranked second in a preseason Landmark Conference poll released last week. Scranton came five points behind Moravian College in the poll.
Scranton finished second in the Landmark Conference last year with a 19-9 record. Strong hopes this year will bring greater success to the Lady Royals and another postseason appearance.
This season, Strong was tasked with finding new players to replace last year’s graduates. Strong said he thinks the team is underestimated this year because of the loss of these core players.
The Lady Royals are a young team this year, with only two seniors but six first-year players. Returning players are seniors Alison Sweeney and Katie Sherry; juniors Lindsay Fluehr, Meredith Mesaris, Lia DiSciascio and Stephanie Keyes; and sophomores Noelle Alicea, Jaclyn Gantz and Karolina Meisenbacher.
Strong said not to underestimate his team this year. Although many of his players are young, he has confidence in their ability to perform.
“Our freshmen are very good,” Strong said. “The freshman class is going to give us immediate help.”
Strong is relying on first-year player Sarah Payonk to be the player to lead the Lady Royals to a championship season. A Presidential Scholar from Schwenksville, Payonk helped her high school team win a state championship last season. As a high school senior, Payonk averaged 10.2 points per game, 7.8 rebounds and shot 73 percent from the free-throw line. Strong said Payonk will likely fill the role left open by graduate Erin Boggan.
Strong said he expects Payonk, Mesaris, Gantz, Fluehr and DiSciascio to be his starting lineup. Strong selected this lineup because of the players’ “hustle, defensive ability and basketball IQ.”
One thing working against the Lady Royals this season is a lack of confidence, Strong said. He said he believes the team has confidence as a group but that confidence is lacking among the individuals. To combat the players’ uncertainty and help the players develop the poise they need to succeed, Strong has been sure to give positive feedback as often as necessary and structured practices to be tough yet confidence-boosting.
“This is one of our points of emphasis — we have not played with a sense of confidence,” Strong said. “They need to step up, including the starting lineup.”
Strong said he likes to “challenge the girls early.” The team’s motto is “All In,” and Strong hopes that the team will pull it together to become an unbeatable force on the court.
“They have to believe in their heads that they can do it,” Strong said. “I know we can do it.”
As he begins his 34th season, Strong is looking ahead to a new milestone — 800 career wins. Already the winningest coach in women’s Division III basketball history, Strong needs just 11 wins this season to reach 800. Strong says he and his players have been “playing it up” and he hopes that the attention taken off the team and put on him will make it easier for the players to focus on the game.
The Lady Royals will start the season with theGwynedd-Mercy Tip-Off Tournament Friday.
The Lady Royals will also play the Lady Monarchs of King’s College 1 p.m. Nov. 23 at the Scandlon Gym as part of the “Play 4 Gray” fundraiser. The event will raise money for King’s head coach Brian Donoghue, who was diagnosed with brain cancer this summer. Donations will be collected at the game and the week prior by.
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