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Experience and Depth Could Drive Yale Women To First Winning Ivy Season

Katie Werner (photo by Steve Musco - Yale Athletics)

Katie Werner (photo by Steve Musco – Yale Athletics)

After finishing tied for third in the Ivy League in 2014–15, the Yale women’s basketball team enters the season with a new coach, a deep and veteran-laden roster and dreams of the team’s first winning Ivy record since 2013 and a seventh-straight finish in the top half of the conference.

Last season, the Bulldogs lost team captain and leading scorer Sarah Halejian to a torn ACL before the Ivy portion of the season commenced. Yale rebounded to finish 7–7 in the Ancient Eight despite the major loss, and in the process the Bulldogs developed much-needed experience that will benefit this year’s squad in head coach Allison Guth’s first year at the helm.

“I expect us to be serious contenders for the Ivy League title,” captain and guard Whitney Wyckoff said. “With a third-place finish last year and 12 out of 13 people returning, we have picked up where we left off from last year. Though we have a really tough pre-Ivy schedule, I fully believe that coach Guth and her staff have the ability to bring us to that next level in the Ivy League.”

Last April, former head coach Chris Gobrecht left the Bulldogs unexpectedly, taking a new position as head coach at the Air Force Academy. To replace Gobrecht — the winningest coach in Yale history — the Elis made the decision in May to bring back Guth, a former Yale assistant who most recently served as an assistant coach at Northwestern.

While the Bulldogs will be playing under new leadership, the personnel on the court will be nearly identical. After Halejian, the team’s only senior, went down with her season-ending knee injury, the Bulldogs responded in remarkable fashion, rattling off seven consecutive victories.

“Halejian left big shoes to fill in a lot of ways,” Wyckoff said. “However, we had experience last year playing without her … Other people were able to step up and collectively fulfill that huge role [Halejian] played, and we were able to succeed with that, so we are only building from there.”

Coming into the 2015–16 season, Yale returns a whopping 89.9 percent of last year’s scoring, including four players who averaged at least seven points a game.

Wyckoff leads the returning crop of talent, as the senior scored a team-high 10.4 points per game during the Ivy schedule.

“There’s obviously a ton of senior leadership that our captain [Wyckoff] brings to the table and leading us from the point guard perspective,” Guth said. “Every senior, from [guard] Nyasha Sarju, who’s been playing phenomenally, to [forward] Meredith Boardman, and what she brings from an intensity and competitiveness perspective, and [center] Emmy Allen, who can get up and down the court with the best post player in the country … that entire senior class brings something special.”

Yale will also look for an impressive sophomore encore from guard Tamara Simpson, who led the team with 2.3 steals per game and also added nearly nine points per contest. Simpson won three Ivy League Rookie of the Week awards last year for her efforts and could very well boost her play to All-Ivy status in her second campaign.

In the frontcourt, Yale is anchored by forward Katie Werner and center Emmy Allen. Werner started all 28 games, averaging a team-high 6.2 rebounds per game to go along with 7.4 points per game. Allen was a defensive force, contributing one block and nearly one steal per game while acting as the Bulldogs’ most effective rim protector.

Beyond those major contributors, the Elis will look to guards Lena Munzer and Mary Ann Santucci for additional scoring. Munzer shot higher than 90 percent from the free-throw stripe in 27 games while Santucci shot 30 percent from three-point range in 13 Ivy League starts.

Although Yale returns many experienced upperclassmen, the Bulldog freshman class could also boost the Bulldogs’ Ivy hopes. The class of 2019 includes three newcomers — guard Paige Vermeer, guard/forward Gabby Nelson and forward Alexandra Maund.

Just as the freshman players will attempt to break into the rotation of established players, Guth hopes to help the Bulldogs climb out of the middle of the Ivy League pack. In the preseason poll, Yale was projected to finish fourth in the Ivy League, behind No. 25 Princeton, Penn and rival Harvard.

“Our mission is to compete at the highest level possible, and to win an Ivy League championship,” Guth said. “We have a bunch of other goals in mind besides that, and as a coaching staff our job is just to help achieve that goal. We’re more focused on short-term goals than the entire mission, but we really do have high expectations for our program.”

In addition to their typical Ivy slate, the Bulldogs will have to navigate a difficult nonconference schedule. Yale opens at Dayton, who finished just outside the preseason Top-25 coaches’ poll, while also facing No. 20 North Carolina, women’s National Invitation Tournament runner-up West Virginia among other major conference schools.

Despite the impressive list of teams slated to face the Elis, Simpson credited Guth’s attention to increasing the intensity of all aspects of preparation, whether in practice or the weight room.

“One major change coach Guth has definitely implemented is the intensity factor,” Simpson said. “It’s created a fearless mindset for us … we don’t fear anyone and we are working the hardest I’ve probably ever worked before.”

After the Bulldogs open their season on the road, they will return home to face New Haven opponent Division III Albertus Magnus on Sunday.

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