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Photo courtesy of DWC Athletics

Daniel Webster College women's basketball coach Marylynn Skarzenski talks to her team during a game against Rivier College this season.
Monday, March 19, 2012

Two women’s hoops teams ruling local college scene

Paul Williams has had the best of both worlds coaching basketball at Rivier College.

He was an assistant on the only men’s team to ever make the NCAA Division III tournament, back in 2007. And this year, he was the head coach of the first women’s basketball team to ever make the ECAC tournament, perhaps the best team in the history of the program.

Is it tougher to succeed in the men’s game or the women’s?

“I can’t answer that,” he said after his team concluded a stellar 18-10 season. “It’s just a matter of finding the right people to fit your program.”

It seems, judging from on-court results, that’s been happening more often lately with the women’s programs from Rivier and rival Daniel Webster College than with their male counterparts. For example, the Eagles just missed out on their second straight New England Collegiate Conference crown and the NCAA tournament berth that goes along with it, falling to Elms College in the conference title game while ending up at 19-9 overall.

“One real good recruiting class elevated their program,” DWC men’s coach Dave Faucher said. “One recruiting class can turn things around. If you look at most teams, that’s what happens.”

Daniel Webster rode the success of two-time conference Player of the Year Alicia Gervais, who will graduate this spring, and her former high school teammate Vannessa Bosques. Gervais averaged 15.0 points and 9.5 rebounds a game this year, and leaves as the program’s second all-time leading rebounder (923) and third in points (1,269).

“We are really going to miss her,” Eagles coach Marylynn Skarzenski said. “This year we rode Gervais and Sara Paternostro (senior, 15 ppg, 5.4 assists per game) as often as we could. We had high expectations this year, we felt we should be a team competing for a conference championship.”

And they were. Bosques, meanwhile, missed the entire year due to a knee injury, and although academically a senior now, she may possibly try to return for her final year of eligibility. She was the NECC Player of the Year in 2009-10. In any event, Skarzenski has been hitting the recruiting trail hard because she has just two on the roster that ended the season eligible to return next year.

“We’re trying to bring in eight to 10 players,” she said of her recruiting efforts. “But it’s going to be pretty competitive, especially with two good teams in the area (meaning the Eagles and Rivier).”

Across town, Williams struck gold with the Purcell sisters of Hudson, senior Amandra and freshman Deanna. Amandra Purcell ended up as the best 3-point shooter nationally in Division III, while Deanna Purcell was the Great Northeast Athletic Conference’s Rookie of the Year. Williams’s Raiders went 11-2 in the GNAC and reached the conference semis for the first time ever, and he was named the conference Coach of the Year.

But now can he keep it going? Likely, yes, because the younger Purcell will be a centerpiece for success, finishing up at 20.8 points and 4.5 rebounds a game. Besides the older Purcell, the Raiders lose just one other senior, Nashua’s Chelsea Barker.

“That year (2007) was great for the men,” Williams said. “It was an amazing run. The girls coming in, they understand what the expectations are. For us, (making the NCAAs) would be absolutely amazing. The girls playing AAU basketball now are strong, serious players. They’re not just doing it for fun.”

And proof that the level has risen was the fact the GNAC champ, Emmanuel, made it to the NCAA Elite Eight. Williams stresses a partnership with the Raider men’s program, not referring to his program as Rivier women’s basketball but “Rivier basketball.” His former boss and current longtime men’s head coach Dave Morissette suffered through a 5-20 season, and feels it’s harder to get those building blocks than it may be for women’s programs.

“I think it’s harder in recruiting for the men,” he said. “Everyone’s heavily recruited. Just an average player could have 15 schools recruiting them.”

Depth at this level, he says, is an issue. “You’re one injury away (from a tough year),” he said. “The year we went to the NCAAs, I had nine solid kids and we were injury free.”

This year, he had a young team, and Morissette was not disappointed in the least, as it’s a season he likely knew the program would have to go to and was impressed with the way his players handled it. Rivier, which lost 10 in a row at one point, and lost 10 games overall by six points or less, only graduates one senior, Will Snider.

“I was very happy with my team, we lost a lot of close games,” he said. “We just need experience. In eight or nine games we were tied in the final three minutes. I had 13 great kids and was not disappointed with them at all.”

Future needs? “We need a couple of recruits that could score a little,” he said, after the team was propelled by 6-5 sophomore Tom Poitras (15.8 ppg) and Nashua’s Jake Nelson (12.4).

Meanwhile, Faucher was also pleased with his Eagles tenacity, as they overcame some academic and discipline issues to finish fourth in the NECC at 8-8 (9-16 overall) and earn home court in the first round. But they were ousted immediately by Newbury.

“It’s just become more competitive,” said Faucher, who was in Greensboro, N.C., at the Division III men’s Final Four that included MIT. “We’re an athletic league, no question about it. Every team has athletes.”

Faucher will look for an impact big man and impact backcourt player in his recruiting travels, but he did have four players average in double figures this year. His top two, 6-3 sophomore Daris Crosby (15.7 ppg) and 6-2 junior John Hickson (14.4) should return.

“It’s not like we weren’t trying (to improve),” Faucher said. “It was bittersweet. We beat just about every team in our conference once, except we couldn’t beat (top team) Becker. We’ll be looking for impact players like everybody else.”

Williams knows the feeling, and he’s hoping his program can keep its progress going.

“Emmanuel lost in the Elite Eight, and that’s the top of our conference,” he said. “Our goal is for them to someday be looking up at us.”