By Jake Tiger
With just two roster spots worth of wiggle room after the 2021-22 season, Lynn Milligan had to use them wisely.
The veteran head coach of Rider’s women’s basketball felt her team was on the cusp of something great despite a disappointing finish to the season, and with the right moves, the Broncs could take the leap back into Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Championship contention.
Through the transfer portal, Milligan concocted a pair of storybook-esque moves by bringing in two junior college players with unexpectedly interwoven histories.
Now as Broncs, juniors forward Toni Blanford and guard Daja Wentz will once again share the same court and old, discolored carpet, as they reconvene as both teammates and roommates.
And they were roommates
Sharing the same dorm as freshmen at Monroe College, a highly-touted junior college in the Bronx, New York, Wentz and Blanford were valuable components of a 19-11 team that won the Northeast District Championship in 2020.
Starting at point guard for most of the season, Wentz led the Mustangs in scoring with 11.1 points per game and 323 total points in 29 games. Blanford, playing the role of a stretch forward, was not far behind, posting 8.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game to go with 30.8% shooting from three.
Wentz remained a Mustang for her sophomore season, while Blanford searched for a bigger role as a transfer, briefly spending time at Coppin State before ultimately ending up at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey, as she felt she was not yet ready for Division I basketball.
“I think it humbled me, for sure,” said Blanford. “Just to know what the Division I life is like. It kept me motivated. To get that… stripped away from you, it keeps you humble, hungry.”
In their solo acts, both Blanford and Wentz saw an uptick in production, and separately, they each felt it was time that they take the leap. Luckily, a nearby head coach was trying to do the same thing with her team.
“It was like a happy accident that they had some familiarity with each other already and then both came here,” said Milligan. “We felt like we needed a little bit of athleticism and speed on the perimeter, and then another post-scorer to help us out. Both of them fit that bill really well.”
‘The stars aligned’
Miraculously, the former Mustangs had crossed paths once again, each ending up in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, at the same time and with the same purpose.
“Honestly, I had no idea she was coming to Rider,” said Wentz. “I guess the stars aligned.”
As they both grow accustomed to their new team and living arrangement, the built-in chemistry between Blanford and Wentz has created a sort of buddy system, as they work together to find their place in Division I basketball and at their new school.
“It definitely helps because you don’t feel alone,” said Wentz. “Just being comfortable with each other. … I think we’re navigating it well together, having each other by our sides.”
On the court, the juniors project to be a formidable duo off of Rider’s bench, already knowing how to play off each other in the halfcourt and in transition.
“I know when she wants to pass to me. I know that she’ll throw the ball up to me if I’m running. I think she trusts me with that,” said Blanford. “You can tell the connection’s there.”
Pre-established chemistry aside, they also provide unique traits that could allow the Broncs to dominate against certain matchups. Wentz can blow by slower guards with her elite speed, while Blanford can open up the paint with her ability to score on all three levels.
“I think both of them will play a significant role in what we do,” said Milligan. “They’re two very different people. Daja’s a little more quiet, a little more behind the scenes. Toni is a little bit more boisterous… putting herself out there, so they’re very different types of players.”
In an unexpected turn of events, the pair of roommates are perhaps Rider’s two most intriguing pieces entering the season. The complementary personalities and playstyles of Blanford and Wentz may very well be what finally gets Rider back over the hump.
“[Blanford’s] definitely loud, but it’s a good energy. I’m more of the quiet one,” said Wentz. “Sweet and sour, I guess.”