When Natalie Piaggesi and Angela Heintz received their Mercyhurst diplomas in May 2017, the rest of the PSAC immediately took notice.
With the two most prolific players in program history moving on from the Mercyhurst Athletic Center, the media were not kind to the returning players. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they lost 12 of 17 after the new year to finish 10-18 overall and 8-14 in conference play.
This year, however, they come into the season seventh in the poll, exacting their finish from last season and just two games out of the final playoff spot in the West. Returning all five starters from 2017, this team is young and optimistic to build off last season and turn it around.
“I would say that last year overall was a learning year, so last year we didn’t have much experience (and) thus it was hard to compete at (that) level due to the fact that we were competing against teams who had the players that had experience,” junior Amber Renz said. “We definitely have the talent. It’s just a different pace from high school to college, so I definitely think just we take it how it is and improve the next following years.”
Edinboro University — despite the retirement of longtime head coach Stan Swank and new alma-mater coach Callie Wheeler — begins their PSAC title defense on top of the West preseason poll.
On the Meryhurst team, the loss of Piaggesi and Heintz, along with Defensive Player of the Year Alex Artise, was apparent from the very beginning in 2017, as the team fell by 21 to West Liberty in the PSAC/Mountain East Challenge in the second game of the season before reaching a season-high one game under .500 on Dec. 3 in Mansfield and again Dec. 18 in Wheeling. But after a contest with Shippensburg on Dec. 30 was postponed, Renz fell victim to an ankle injury after averaging 17.8 points per game before the new year.
Looking to improve on their 5-7 record, the Lakers were promptly demolished by 51 by IUP at the Kovalchick Complex on Jan. 8. The game marked IUP coach Tom McConnell’s 100th career victory with the then-No. 3 Crimson Hawks and the Lakers’ largest margin of defeat since a 53-point loss at Kovalchick in January 2013. The Lakers rebounded to finish January at 9-12 and 6-10 in the conference to remain within striking distance of a playoff spot after upsetting No. 14 Cal on Jan. 20 and the sixth-ranked Hawks.
That Jan. 27 game in Erie ended on a three-pointer by Emily Shopene with 24 seconds left in regulation, sending the Mercyhurst Athletic Center into pandemonium after a roller-coaster second half. By the beginning of February, the Lakers were just a half-game behind Slippery Rock for the sixth spot in the West going into a crucial contest with Slippery Rock on Feb. 7
There was “a huge difference, they were just really hooked up, playing very well especially on the defensive end,” McConnell said. “They made us work for everything we got tonight, and every shot was challenged. I give them a lot of credit.”
But Renz, who had been injured, was missed too much by Deanna Richard’s squad, as they lost their first five games in February, each of the first four by less than 10 points. They were mathematically eliminated in the final game of that losing streak, a 16-point loss on Feb. 17 in the second Pride of Erie Game that allowed Gannon to clinch a playoff spot and lock Slippery Rock into the six-seed.
But all was not lost for the Lakers last season.
They managed to finish third in the PSAC with a 34.6 percent clip from downtown and fifth at 42.3 percent overall while finishing third with a +3 rebounding margin. Renz and Maria Lapertosa both finished with 12.8 points per game despite Lapertosa playing in just 21 contests.
Emilee Norris, one of two Lakers to start every game last year, was seventh in the West with 7.1 rebounds per game and fourth in the PSAC with 1.7 blocks, including a season-high five on Feb. 10 against Seton Hill and four other games with four. Lapertosa led the team in scoring while finishing 10th in the West in free-throw percentage (.784) and seventh in the division in three-point makes per games (1.8). Furthermore, Shopene was immediately thrust into Richard’s system in lieu of Heintz after a 20-4 senior season at Mercyhurst Prep and a trip to the District 10 title game and immediately made an impact, starting all 28 contests last year and finishing seventh in the PSAC and fourth in the West with 3.6 assists per game — a mark that ranked seventh nationally among freshmen — and 10th with a 1.3 assist/turnover ratio while playing the second-most minutes of any player in the West at 34.7.
Renz personally believes Shopene vastly improved during the season and expects her to be a major cog in Richard’s system. Meanwhile, fellow sophomore Eliza Oswalt contributed nicely off the bench as a freshman, recording 8.1 points per game in 14 contests, including a season-high 22 on Feb. 21 against Pitt-Johnstown. Looking ahead to this season for the Lakers, six players start the year injured, including two incoming freshmen — Emily Bauer and Alyssa Eyth. Meanwhile, Mercyhurst’s Abbey Larkin was selected to play in April’s 6A Roundball Classic in Beaver Falls, while Nicolete Newman won state titles in 2014 and 2016 before averaging 3 and 5.6 points per game in her first two years at Cleveland State before transferring to Robert Morris but did not play last season.