DARTMOUTH, Mass. – With basketball season just a week away, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth women's basketball team has garnered national preseason recognition following last season's NCAA Division III Championship tournament run.
For the first time in program history, the Corsairs enter the season with a national ranking. Last week, D3Hoops.com released their annual preseason basketball rankings with the Corsairs, one of three New England teams ranked inside the top-20, ranking in at No. 18 in anticipation of the upcoming campaign. Furthermore, defending Little East Conference Player of the Year Nakira Examond (New Bedford, Mass.) was recognized by the publication as a D3Hoops.com Preseason Third Team All-American, one of just 25 players in all of Division III to receive the honor.
Amongst its peers, UMass Dartmouth has been tabbed as the unanimous LEC Preseason Poll favorite, taking the top spot for the second-straight season.
The nationwide and regional buzz for the group comes following a historic season that saw the Corsairs wrap up a 25-6 overall record and earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Championship for the first appearance in the tournament in program history.
The season concluded in the quarterfinal round when UMass fell to Amherst College, the eventual national champion, but not without the Corsairs women making history by becoming just the second women's program regardless of sport to reach a sectional final. En route, the Corsairs defeated the likes of La Roche College, SUNY New Paltz and gathered the program's first-ever victory over a ranked opponent, upsetting No. 11 Montclair State in the second round.
In 2017-18, the roster is nearly identical, as head coach Matt Ducharme looks to replace only Rachel McCarron, a starter at guard last season.
At the top of the returning players is Examond, who becomes just the second preseason All-American in program history, joining former teammate Megan Ronaghan '16. Last season, she earned D3Hoops.com First Team All-Northeast regional honors after averaging a league-high double-double for points (15.8) and rebounds (10.3). She also ranked among the nation's statistical leaders, sitting fourth nationally in field goal percentage (63.9) and in the top 20 in total rebounds (17th, 320) and offensive rebounds per game (19th, 5.0).
The roster is full of players who gained valuable experience from that run in the tournament. By class, there are four seniors, four juniors, four sophomores, and just two freshman newcomers to college hoops. Seniors Alicia Kutil (Franklin, Mass.), Leah Douty (Framingham, Mass.), and Chelsea Houlihan (Wolcott, Conn.) round out UMass Dartmouth's four returning starters, all of whom saw top minutes last season.
Now that the road is paved, the Corsairs are set on making a return to the national stage. Moving forward, the Corsairs have upped their strength of schedule, adding fellow New England powers in Tufts University (national preseason No. 1) and Bowdoin College (receiving votes nationally) to the regular-season slate.
The only sure-fire path to the national tournament is by earning an automatic bid via conference championship – a feat the program has yet to accomplish. With unanimous selection atop the preseason poll, Ducharme looks to have the pieces in place to work toward capturing the LEC Championship trophy. With three total LEC women's teams earning spots in the NCAA Championship last season (Eastern Connecticut, Keene State), the conference slate will once again prove challenging, as Keene State ranked in second in the preseason poll with Western Connecticut taking third and Eastern Connecticut fourth. Last season, UMass Dartmouth was tripped up in the conference semifinals against the eventual league champion Owls, after entering as the No. 3 seed with an 11-3 LEC record.
UMass Dartmouth kicks off the season with its new ranking next Friday, Nov. 17 in the Corsairs' own Fairfield Inn & Suites Classic against Rivier College at noon.