BY CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: SU meets in a huddle during its game against Southern Virginia. Feb. 17. Emma Reider photo
The Salisbury University women’s basketball team walked off the court in the CAC First Round once again to mark the end of their campaign last season. It was the third consecutive year that the Sea Gulls were eliminated during their initial conference playoff game.
This stretch came after one of the most successful seasons in program history, when Salisbury took home the conference crown and advanced all the way to the NCAA quarterfinals in the 2014-15 campaign. Now entering the 2018-19 campaign, the Sea Gulls will look to claim that elusive conference playoff win with the hope of finding a similar stride to 2015.
A glance at the team’s roster this season already suggests that a change is in the air for the squad. SU features many new freshmen after the departure of three seniors a year ago.
Despite the youth on the squad, Salisbury still possesses four seniors who see a new positive vibe and energy among the team ahead of the season.
“I think it’s really exciting,” SU senior forward Kaylyn French said. “They all came in here ready to go. They practically know everything, so we’re ready to just kick off the season.”
SU head coach Kelly Baskow said that increased competition in practice is fostering more positive energy all around.
“It’s been fun to have some fresh blood,” Baskow said. “I think there’s been a lot of competition, so that’s really made it fun for the players, fun for the coaches, really pushing each other. We’re really focusing on enthusiasm and intensity and aggressiveness.”
Among those four seniors, the Sea Gulls return two very productive players in guard Megan Konig and French. Both players return as the team’s leading scorers from a season ago.
French became a threat offensively last season, adding onto her defensive effort inside the paint in which she led the team in rebounding and steals per game. With a team-leading 11.4 points per game too, French was named to the All-CAC Second Team at the end of the year.
“The more I looked to score and the more it would go in, the more I felt comfortable with it,” French said. “It just started coming.”
Last year was Konig’s first season with starting experience over her career in the maroon and gold. With 12 starts in the first 13 games, Konig hit double-figures in scoring nine times.
However, in the final 12 games that she played, the Salisbury guard did not find double-digit scoring again. Her production was still enough to finish second on the team in scoring and set her up well for success as a senior this year.
“My confidence on offense definitely showed more last year,” Konig said. “I feel like that came from developing my defense. Having confidence on both sides really helps.”
At 1.8 assists per game last year, Konig might be a key to aiding in offensive production this season with offensive creators Mary McDonagh and Morgan Grubb now gone from the team. The Ellicott City, Md., native had 11 multi-assist games in the 2017-18 campaign.
For Konig, finding that elusive playoff victory means everyone going the extra mile.
“Pushing through setbacks when you get tired, every day we come in and our mentality is ‘We are champions,’” Konig said. “There’s no getting tired or missing a play. You’re in every single play doing everything you can.”
With the departure of forward Paige Bryce, SU does lose some depth in the paint with her 6.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. French and junior forward Rachel Ryan do return as the specialists inside.
Ryan utilized her 19 starts in 26 appearances last season to grow on the court. By the end of the year, Ryan was fourth on the team in scoring and second in rebounding.
With 76 starts over the last three seasons, McDonagh is one of the departing players that Salisbury will miss bringing the ball down the court. McDonagh was an offensive catalyst, third on the team in scoring while leading SU with 4.6 assists per game.
Returning point guard Amber Onyekwere has the lead entering practice for that starting spot after appearing 25 times in the maroon and gold last season. Onyekwere contributed to the team defensively, second in steals per game.
“She’s been really stepping up right now,” Baskow said. “We also have some freshmen that have come in. It’s a big position that we recruited for this year, so we have a couple of freshman point guard possibilities. Sometimes we handle it by committee too, because we want to look to run.”
That defensive aspect of the game and rebounding inside will continue to be a big part of the Sea Gulls’ strategy. While SU was not flashy on the offensive end, the team put up impressive numbers on the defensive end.
Salisbury registered as second in the CAC in points per game allowed. Aiding that mark was its shooting defense, which finished second in percentage beyond the arc and first against all field goals.
Leading that defense and the team at its core will be this senior class. Baskow said that a focus this offseason has been on leadership in multiple capacities with the veteran group.
“What it takes to win a championship, what it takes to go a little further, push a little harder, how to expect it out of each other, not to be comfortable,” Baskow said. “I think they have really accepted the challenge very well. They’ve not only challenged their teammates, but themselves.”
Salisbury begins their campaign on Nov. 14 when the Sea Gulls host Virginia Wesleyan University. SU will then take a trip to the Gwynedd Mercy Tournament for two games before returning home to host Stevenson University on Nov. 20.
“Our phrase this year is ‘Together we can,’” French said. “As long as we remember that we’re in this together, I think that’s what will get us through the whole season.”