With no Natalie Piaggesi or Angela Heintz to lead the way, the current Lakers were polled in last place for the PSAC West. It was just eight months ago that the Mercyhurst Lakers women’s basketball team was considering whether the Lakers would be receiving their first NCAA bid in 22 years. They would do just that, and went on to record the second-best season in program history since that 1994-95 squad that reached the Elite Eight. But it was also just 11 days prior that an upset of third-ranked California doubled as one of the most bittersweet Senior Days in recent memory.
Laker Coach Deanna Richard graduated an extremely loaded and talented senior class, including her top three scorers and leaders from a season that rewrote a significant portion of the program record books. PSAC champs Indiana were tabbed as preseason favorites in the poll released Oct. 6, taking 8 of the 9 first-place votes in the West. Atlantic Region top-seed and finalists California grabbed the only other vote, followed by Edinboro, Seton Hill, Gannon, Slippery Rock, Clarion and Pitt-Johnstown. From the beginning, last season appeared to be one of the most historic in recent memory as Richard’s squad compiled an 11-1 start before the calendar even flipped to 2017. The only defeat came from the eventual undefeated national champions Ashland University.
After their eight-game winning streak was snapped Jan. 9 against current preseason favorites Indiana, the Lakers responded by going 9-4 the rest of the way. On Jan. 10, they reached the 21st spot on the national media poll, recording the best start to a season since 1988. Along the way, they recorded the fourth-best defense in the PSAC at 59.7 allowed points per contest, led the conference in defensive rebounds and rebounding margin and were one of six teams to outscore their opponents by at least nine per game. Additionally, they held their opponents to just 27.8 percent from downtown (second in the PSAC), and went 14-2 when scoring at least 70 points. Individually, Laker senior Piaggesi led the conference with an average of two blocks per contest, including setting a program record with 173 at Gannon.
She retired as the longest-tenured Laker with 115 games played and fourth-leading scorer in program history (1,609). Angela Heintz, teammates with Piaggesi dating back to their state title in 2012 at Seton-LaSalle High School, made her own mark as well. She became the 20th Laker to record 1,000 points with the Green-and-White on Feb. 18 in a win over Edinboro. Heintz also set single-season (211) and career (400) assist records. Meanwhile, North East product Alex Artise became the first player in program history to be named Defensive Player of the Year, taking home the West Division honor.
She then joined Richard’s coaching staff after suffering a career-ending knee injury. The biggest challenge would be filling in their shoes. “They were all great leaders that excelled on and off the court,” said junior Emilee Norris. “However, the path they led has helped not only the current upperclassmen, but the program overall.” But a graduating senior was the leading scorer in every contest. Returning players accounted for only 23.2 percent of the Lakers’ scoring. Leading the way will be junior Maria Lapertosa, the only non-senior to rank in the top seven in scoring at 8.3 points per game. The Whitesboro, New York, native contributed nicely off the bench throughout the season, shooting 80.6 percent from the line, good enough for ninth in the PSAC.
The Lakers have one of the youngest teams in the conference this season. Luckily, the six incoming freshmen maintain a strong high-school record, beginning with Burrell product Eliza Oswalt.
Despite the squad’s 9-14 record, Oswalt led the team with 21.7 points per contest and broke the 1,000-point plateau in early 2017. Emily Shopene, meanwhile, was named to the state Class 4A third team and comes from a 20-4 Mercyhurst Prep squad that reached the District 10 title game. Coming to Erie from next-door Ohio is Rachel Chessar, a 1,000-point scorer at Akron’s Archbishop Hogan; Vivian Allison, a first-team selection in the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference for both basketball and soccer; and Meghan Komendarek, a standout a three-time Class B All-State Selection. Rounding out the freshmen is Mallory Ashe, a two-sport athlete and prestigious Science Academy participant at Mount Mercy in Angola, New York.
The Lakers take to the court Nov. 11, traveling to face off against Notre Dame of Ohio.