By Dylan Manfre
Emily Strunk committed to Rider believing she was going to be one of two freshmen playing on the court — the other was guard Madison Johnson.
Strunk looked forward to sharing the hardwood with Johnson and spoke to her before coming to Lawrenceville. Now they are roommates and spend plenty of time together aside from basketball. Things took a turn for Johnson when she tore her ACL and was ruled out for the season.
Strunk was thrust into the unique role of being the sole active freshman on an experienced roster. Senior Daija Moses was the only player to leave Rider, as she joined Detroit Mercy as a graduate transfer.
The pesky injury bug has beleaguered Rider all season and forced Head Coach Lynn Milligan to allocate some minutes for Strunk that most first-year players might not get.
“It’s definitely been a big change for me,” Strunk said. “Being the only freshman that’s actually doing things and playing; everyone else has played college basketball before, I’m the only person who’s new.”
It was a “culture shock” to her, and Strunk admitted she was “not really ready for it.” She has typically been the best player on the team, and now, Strunk is one piece to the overall puzzle. Strunk’s complement, Johnson, was missing from the equation.
“It is hard sometimes because I am the only one who really doesn’t know how things should be run,” Strunk said. “But it is getting easier as time goes on — obviously I’ve been here since July — so it’s not all brand new to me right now, but it definitely was something I wasn’t really prepared for … to be the only person who’s new.”
Strunk, who is from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, plays around 11 minutes per game and saw the most action against Quinnipiac on Dec. 18 when she played for 18 minutes. Being that it was the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) opener for the Broncs, that was as good a time as ever to show Strunk what conference play is all about.
Milligan’s goal for Strunk was to get her meaningful minutes and understand the tough situation she is in.
“It’s tough being the only person that hasn’t played at this level and [knowing] the intensity it takes to play at this level … it always takes a little longer, but she’s going to help us a lot this year,” Milligan said in late November.
Milligan believes Strunk can be deep in the rotation, and with the aforementioned injury bug going around, Strunk has seen double-digit minutes in nine games this season.
She might not show up in the scoring column, but she has grabbed at least two rebounds in eight games. Milligan described her in November as a “strong, versatile, post player.”
Against Quinnipiac in the first quarter, Milligan motioned to Strunk on the court after a foul had been called and emphatically clapped her hands and said “Grab the ball. Be tough with it.”
The right player in the wrong place
Strunk does not miss playing high school ball. She was dominant at Stroudsburg. She scored her 1,000th point on a free throw en route to finishing that game with 20 points and 20 rebounds.
She scored 30 points in each of the final two games of her senior year. “It wasn’t competitive for me,” she said.
Women’s basketball was not popular where Strunk lived but in Lehigh Valley, it was. That is where she says the most competitive basketball was played.
“There was just so many people down there who competitively wanted to be a Division 1 athlete,” Strunk said.
Where she came from was not conducive to molding a high school basketball career. She ruled out attending Blair Academy in New Jersey, a private school over an hour away from her home, even though Strunk might have been scouted more if she went there.
“If I wanted to play Division I basketball, I was going to figure out a way to do it from my public school,” Strunk said. “If I’m going to get it done, it’s going to get done here.”
Whatever court she is playing on, her focus boils down to one thing things: helping her team win.