Bucknell may be the defending Patriot League regular season and tournament champions, but it’s still uncommon for a team that graduated three outstanding starters to be picked first in the conference’s preseason poll the following season. It’s even more notable when those three players include the Patriot League Player of the Year, a Third Team All-Patriot League honoree, and another that started the first 74 games of her career and 103 overall.
But that’s the respect that head coach Aaron Roussell and the Bison program have garnered from their peers after putting together the best five-year record in school history, among a list of other program records along the way. While the potential is there with some of the best players in the league still on the Bison roster in addition to another strong recruiting class, the fact of the matter remains that the coaching staff is still putting the pieces together during the offseason to figure out what they have.
What the coaches know they do have is a trio of players with starting experience that will be leaned on early to help the team put everything together for another successful season. That starts with junior Kaitlyn Slagus, a Second Team All-Patriot League selection last season and a Preseason All-Patriot League honoree this year.
Part of Bucknell’s success has come from its ability to recruit versatile players or mold them into such when they arrive to campus. A Bison forward still needs to have a mid-range or outside shot in addition to being a solid free-throw shooter. Guards are counted on for more than ballhandling and shooting. They should expect to play strong defense and crash the boards, as well.
Slagus fits that versatile mold, as evident by her numbers from last season. After starting all 33 games, she finished second in the Patriot League in rebounding (8.8), fourth in blocks (1.5), and 12th in scoring (12.2). For her career, Slagus has tallied 13 double-doubles, has led the team in scoring seven times and in rebounding 22 times. She has done it from in the paint or beyond the arc, hitting three or more 3-pointers in a game six times. She put that versatility on full display when the Bison were shorthanded, leading the team to a five-point win over Manhattan with 16 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and five blocks.
“She has played alongside some really good post players, which for her individually can be looked at in two different ways going forward,” Roussell said. “Obviously, she will have more focus on her now, but at the same she will really be able to spread her wings a little more. The improvement we have seen from her offensively, defensively, and in her conditioning since last spring has been great. She will be one of the best players in the league this year.”
Slagus will be joined in the frontcourt by senior captain Catherine Romaine, who has played in 78 games, including 11 starts during her career.
“She has given us a lot of production over the past few years but has been playing behind some really good players,” Roussell said. “She is one of the best athletes in the league and can defend really well. We expect some really great things from her this year.”
The Bison also have plenty of experience returning in the backcourt, including two-year starting point guard Kyi English. Forced into a bigger role due to the team’s starting point guard being injured midway through her freshman season, English was a key component of the Bison’s incredible 17-1 league record that year, and then took on even more responsibility while leading the team to a 16-2 record in league play as a sophomore. English has often provided a spark to the team offensively with her ability to break full-court defensive pressure on her own, and her knack for getting to the hoop through traffic.
“We’re excited to have Kyi’s experience at point guard,” Roussell said. “Having had her in the starting lineup for two years, there is a comfort for me as a coach to have her out there and there is a comfort for both the new and returning players knowing she is out there with the minutes she has logged for this team.”
Junior Kate Walker is expected to be a part of Bucknell’s starting backcourt this season, and although she came off the bench last season, she often played starter-like minutes. Even beyond that, she often exceeded the production of most of the league’s starters on both ends of the floor.
Walker’s strong defensive play and ability to shoot from the outside was supplemented with the addition of a nice baseline drive last season. That freed her up for her bread-and-butter offensive skill, draining threes in the most clutch of situations. She made 49 threes last season on 45 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and it seemed the majority of them came in response to a score by the opponent at the other end.
“Kate had a role of coming off the bench last year, but I think she was one of the best players in the league,” Roussell said. “The confidence we have seen in her has been outstanding. She shoots more and attacks the basket more. I think she will be one of the toughest covers in the Patriot League.”
Those four will be leaned on heavily because of their experience, but that’s just where it starts for the Bison. Another factor in the team’s improvements each season under Roussell has been its increased depth, and that figures to be the case again this season.
For the guards, sophomore Gia Hayes stepped in to a starting role twice last season and performed well each time. A natural scorer, she opened some eyes with nine points in just 10 minutes on the biggest stage of the season, an NCAA Tournament First Round game at No. 3 Maryland. While Hayes excels on offense, the Bison can also turn to junior Rachel Dumiak if they want to put a top-notch defender on the floor.
“Gia got some really great experience both on the ball and off the ball and I think she will see time in both of those spots this year,” Roussell said. “Rachel has come a long way and gives us length at the wing. She prides herself on her defense and good things seem to happen for us when she is on the floor.”
Roussell also has high hopes for a trio of other players that don’t yet have collegiate game experience. He says freshman Ally Johnson is one of the best shooters he has seen at this level, and freshman Abby Kapp is already one of the hardest workers he has coached. He is especially excited to see what he has in 6-3 sophomore Ellie Mack, who missed her entire freshman season with an injury.
“There aren’t a whole lot of players like her as far as her skillset that we have had here,” Roussell said of Mack. “To be 6-3 and be able to shoot the ball the way that she does and finish the way that she does, the sky is the limit for her. It’s just a matter of her getting comfortable on the court.”
Joining Slagus and Romaine in the frontcourt will be 6-5 sophomore MK Moore, who proved she could put up solid numbers while playing limited time last season. Junior Maegan Mikkelsen has done the same, mixing in her post play with some outside shooting, while battling back from injuries. Also in the mix will be freshmen Autumn Ceppi and Tessa Brugler.
Roussell knows the talent is there and is confident his coaching staff will help the players develop from the beginning of the season to the end, but was still surprised to see the preseason votes go the way they did.
“I have a hard time believing we are the best team in the league right now, but if we fix a few things I see no reason why we can’t be soon,” Roussell said.
To do that, Bucknell isn’t necessarily setting specific goals. Obviously, for every team a conference title is what’s on the table, but the Bison are more focused on what it takes to get there. Roussell believes that if the team does the right things along the way, the titles, the accolades, the streaks, the records, etc., can be byproducts of putting in the time.
“We have certain standards we want to hold ourselves to,” Roussell said. “To be one of the best mid-majors in the country, which is what we want to be, you have to have certain things you do very well and some things you have to avoid. We have may have new players out there this year, but those standards and the expectations haven’t changed. It may take a while to get where we want to be on game day, but the expectations for the offseason and practices never change.”
As he mentioned, being one of the best mid-major programs is important to Roussell, and the team has taken strides toward achieving that every season under his direction.
The Bison received national attention throughout the year, most notably cracking ESPN’s top-10 mid-major rankings. They were consistently ranked in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Poll and finished sixth in the final edition. The team even stacked up well on a national level against all teams in Division I, finishing 57th out of 349 teams in the final RPI.
As usual, Bucknell will test itself early in the non-conference schedule, including eight opponents that have played in a national postseason tournament within the past two seasons. And one of the three teams that isn’t on that list is Pittsburgh, a Power Five team in the ACC.
The Bison open the season on the road at Rider on Friday, Nov. 10. The home opener, which will include a banner unveiling for the latest championships, will be against Akron on Sunday, Nov. 12. The Patriot League schedule begins on Friday, Dec. 29, at American.