Rider returns healthy and hungry

By Jake Tiger

After a year lost to injuries and inconsistency, Rider women’s basketball is back to full strength and poised for a season that will surprise doubters.

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) preseason poll had Rider and Marist tied for sixth in the conference, despite the Broncs finishing as the ninth seed last season.

“If there’s a dark horse this year, it’s [Milligan’s] team,” said Marist Head Coach Brian Giorgis during a preseason coaches’ call with the media. “They’ve got a lot of experience and kids that just didn’t play to their potential last year, and you know when that happens, they get real fired up. … They are gonna be one tough out.”

In the same poll, junior guard Makayla Firebaugh was voted to preseason All-MAAC third team, the only Bronc to make any of the teams. The honor is a demotion from her second team distinction last season, as many, including Firebaugh, felt that her 2021-22 campaign was a bit lackluster.

“I think last year, and [Firebaugh] will tell you this, she had a solid year. It wasn’t the year that she wanted,” said Milligan. “She wants to be great, so I think she felt like she left some stuff on the table last year. She really got in the gym this summer, particularly in the weightroom. She’s a different looking kid. … She got beat up a lot last year and … she took that a little personally.”

While Firebaugh is a lock for Rider’s starting five, there are still a number of questions on who exactly the Broncs will roll out for their exhibition game against The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) on Nov. 2.

The starting lineup will likely feature a backcourt of graduate student guard Amanda Mobley and senior guard Maya Hyacienth, along with a frontcourt of Firebaugh, junior forward Raphaela Toussaint and senior center and captain Victoria Toomey.

“We have veterans that were a part of that [2020] championship team in Amanda, Victoria and Maya… their first years, they were at the mountain top and they know what it takes,” said Milligan.

Mobley started at point guard for the Broncs in her sophomore and junior seasons, and in the first three games of last season before Lenaejha Evans played her way into the lineup. With Evans departing for Elon and Mobley’s experience, she’ll no doubt be running the point again for Rider. In the 2021-22 season, Mobley averaged 4.0 points per game and 3.6 assists per game.

Like Mobley, Hyacienth also started in three games for the Broncs last season, but she suffered a season- ending knee injury in her third start against St. Francis Brooklyn. As she has been in the past, Hyacienth should be a useful two-way threat for Rider, providing reliable defense and complementary scoring to Mobley and Firebaugh. As a sophomore, Hyacienth put up 7.3 points per game and almost a steal per game.

However, there is a chance Hyacienth’s replacement, senior guard Jessika Schiffer, retains her spot as starting shooting guard due to her stellar play last season. In Hyacienth’s stead, Schiffer proved to be more than capable, averaging 9.6 points per game and capping off the season with a 19-point performance against Iona in the opening round of the MAAC Tournament.

It is impossible to talk about the impending season without discussing the departure of guard Lenaejha Evans, as she transferred to Elon University in the offseason. In the 2021-22 season, Evans averaged 14.0 points per game, the highest of anyone on the team and the seventh highest in the MAAC. With a substantial chunk of offense vacated, it is unclear how exactly those points will be redistributed.

Along with Evans, forward Teresa Wolak left the team after graduating, leaving two open spots on Rider’s roster. Rather than bringing in freshmen, Milligan opted for two junior college transfers in junior forward Toni Blanford and junior guard Daja Wentz. The pair of juniors better match Rider’s timeline and are ready to contribute now, while also adding much-needed depth to a team that was dealing with injuries for most of last season. As former teammates at Monroe College, Blanford and Wentz should make for a respectable duo off the bench.

Other key reserves for the Broncs include Schiffer and senior forward Anna Ekerstedt, who each started in double-digit games last season.

If Rider can stay healthy this time around, its depth could end up being its most valuable asset.

“Every single day, we’ve worked to get 1% better. That’s definitely [Milligan’s] motto,” said Blanford. “We like to be the underdogs. We like to have people not know what to expect out of us.”

The Broncs’ look to get warmed up for their redemption tour on Nov. 2 when they host TCNJ for an exhibition game. Their first regular season game will be against the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) on Nov. 7.

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