For Mount St. Mary’s women’s basketball senior Jatarrikah Settle, one feeling still lingers. The feeling stems from March, when the Mountaineers were preparing for their Northeast Conference Tournament semifinal game against Fairleigh Dickinson. With a win, Mount St. Mary’s would’ve been one win away from its first NCAA Tournament since 1995.
The game was canceled due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. But that missed opportunity is motivating a team that returns 96 percent of its minutes played and 98 percent of its scoring after a topsy-turvy offseason.
“We’re just ready to go out here and finish what we started last year,” Settle said, “and be the team we know and the rest of the conference knows we can be and actually win that championship we’ve been dying to compete for.”
When head coach Maria Marchesano took over the program after the 2016-17 season, Mount St. Mary’s had just two winning seasons this century. The program has taken steps forward each year the past three seasons, going from 9-20 (2017-18) to 15-16 (2018-19) to 20-11 last season. That was the first 20-win season for the Mount since the 1999-2000 season, and the second-place finish in the NEC was its highest since 2000-01. For Marchesano, things are moving right on schedule.
“This was absolutely the goal,” Marchesano said. “I thought in Year Three we would get it done and I thought we had a chance to prove that last year. But Year Four, with the seniors we knew we would have — the seniors and juniors, really — we expected to be in the top of our league this year.”
The Mountaineers return eight players who played more than 17.6 minutes and averaged more than 4.9 points per game last year, led by junior point guard Michaela Harrison. Harrison led the team in scoring with 12.2 points per game last season on her way to a first team All-NEC selection.
“She’s going to have the ball in her hands more than anyone else in our program,” Marchesano said. “She’s the best at putting the ball in the hole and making really good decisions. We expect her to have another great year.”
Redshirt senior Kendall Bresee returns as a do-it-all player. She led the team in rebounds (6.5) and assists (3.7) per game while averaging 11.3 points per game last season. Settle and senior Bridget Birkhead are expected to play key roles as well. Settle averaged 9.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last year, and Marchesano expects her to guard the opponent’s best player. Birkhead averaged 7.9 points per game and was an excellent 3-point shooter, hitting 41.1 percent of her shots from beyond the arc.
Marchesano also expects big things from redshirt senior Kayla Agentowicz, who returned to the starting lineup last season after missing all of 2018-19 with an injury.
“She’s been our best player all preseason and it’s probably not really close,” Marchesano said of Agentowicz.
Add in junior Taylor Addison, senior Rebecca Lee and redshirt sophomore Aryna Taylor, who were all rotation players last year, and the Mount feels like it doesn’t need to rely on just one player to carry the load night after night.
“We know that on any given night, any one of our first eight people off the bench can get it going and can get hot,” Settle said. “You never know whose night it’s going to be, which is always a plus.”
In a normal season, this senior-laden team would be feeling some pressure, especially after Robert Morris, which won the NEC regular season title the last four seasons and the conference tournament in three of those years, left the conference to join the Horizon League.
But with COVID-19, the focus has been making sure the team is ready to play when the season starts Nov. 25 at James Madison. Players initially had a week to get settled in on campus during the summer; the team started one-on-one workouts Aug. 24, doing conditioning workouts outside and more basketball-specific workouts inside. Two weeks after that, the team started Phase Two: small-group workouts during which players wore masks. Then on Sept. 14 the team finally moved into Phase Three: working out as a team.
In terms of testing, Marchesano said her team has entered a “tier one bubble,” which includes the coaches, players and managers who will be traveling with the team. Those groups are now being tested every other day.
When the team was finally able to practice together, things were clunky at first but have since picked up. It helps the Mountaineers to have their top eight scorers from last year, as they know the basic tenets of the offense and defense and what to do in certain situations. That allows them to focus on their main goal: to finish what they started last year by winning a championship.
“We’re here and we’re ready and we’re going to finish what we didn’t get to last year,” Birkhead said. “We’re all so happy that we get to be back and play with each other, but there’s also some unfinished business that we need to take care of this year.”
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Mount St. Mary’s Athletics