By Steve Sica
The Broncs head into this year’s MAAC championship as the fourth seed and are set to take on fifth-seeded Niagara tonight in an effort to bring a conference title home.
Although the season’s end is coming fast, the Broncs (15-14, 10-8 MAAC) see this weekend as a fresh start. Still, they hope to continue to build off of prior success.
“We worked very hard all season to get the seed we have,” Head Coach Lynn Milligan said. “Starting play in the quarterfinals is new territory to us, but it will help us out a lot.”
Other highly ranked teams that could pose possible threats to Rider include second-seeded Iona (18-11, 13-5 MAAC), third-seeded Fairfield (17-12, 11-7 MAAC) and the MAAC women’s powerhouse, first-seeded Marist (18-0 MAAC), which has won the tournament every year since 2006. The Broncs were beat by Iona and Marist during the regular season, but swept Fairfield both times the two teams met. This week though, all the focus is on Niagara.
While this game is more important than a regular conference game, Milligan and her players are trying not to overthink it.
“We are conducting our business as usual,” Milligan said. “We’re going to do the same thing we do every week in practice and just treat this as a normal week, knowing that’s it’s bigger than that.”
Niagara beat the Broncs twice during the regular season but the Broncs were missing key players in two close losses, according to graduate forward Carleigh Brown.
“Both times we played Niagara, we didn’t have our entire team,” she said. “The first game [junior forward] MyNeshia McKenzie was out for most of the game and the second time [senior forward] Caitlin Bopp didn’t play at all.”
With the team at full strength and a trip to the semi-finals on the line, the Broncs hope to give the Purple Eagles more of a fight than last time.
“This time we will have everyone and when our entire team plays together, we are extremely talented,” Brown said. “We are also playing for a lot more in this game.”
With the stakes high in this win-or-go-home-style tournament, Milligan is looking to get an edge over the opponent early.
“We obviously have to play very well,” Milligan said. “We need to establish our inside presence, rebound well and contain a couple of their players and that will enable us to get our transition offense going.”
This upcoming game has the potential to be the last game for the seniors on the team, and many of them want this year’s tournament to be one to remember.
“I am playing for my last time in the MAAC tournament so this means a lot to me and all the seniors,” Brown said. “This year we are playing for the chance to meet a goal we set out at the beginning of the year and that was to make it to the MAAC championship.”
Milligan emphasized the importance of this weekend for the Broncs and complimented the team on its efforts and hard work so far.
“I couldn’t even put into words what this means to them,” Milligan said. “They’ve done amazing things these past four years; they’re excited and ready.”