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EVA CUNNINGHAM TAKES YOUNG EAGLES UNDER HER WING

What's up: On a team full of inexperience, coach Bill Agronin at least can rely on senior guard Eva Cunningham. The 5-foot-8 Iroquois product is the Metro Atlantic's Preseason Player of the Year, an unusual honor from a team picked to finish eighth in the preseason coaches' poll. She's going to have to do it all.

"She's going to have people coming after her, and we talked all the way into last year about what this year will be like for her," Agronin said. "She's worked hard over the summer, gotten a little quicker. Any apprehension she might have had has been replaced by enthusiasm."

Cunningham is 511 points shy of becoming the school's all-time scoring leader, meaning she'll have to average around 18 points per game to get the mark; Cunningham averaged 19.1 as a sophomore but scored 15.1 last year as NU had a more balanced attack.

And while she's the only starter back, Cunningham will be working with a group of improving sophomores and juniors and some impressive freshmen.

The top frosh is 5-10 Michelle Manfredi, who's most comfortable at guard but can also slip into a forward slot. Agronin said Toni Smalley, a 5-11 sophomore, and 6-3 junior Jennifer Roueche have shown major improvement over the summer and in preseason practice and should begin to contribute in the frontcourt as well.

"Freshmen don't understand what they don't understand," Agronin said, borrowing from Bill Parcells' mantra of "rookies don't know what they don't know."

"Freshmen learn by the time they're sophomores. And we've found the light comes on and they really elevate themselves as juniors. It's a whole bunch of different faces. They're eager, and they have Eva, so that makes it better."

What's down: With the graduations of Jessica Kemp, Colleen Toetz, Ann Mimm and Sarah Heben, Niagara lost four starters who compiled 64.4 percent of its scoring and 69 percent of its rebounding.

Scoring has to come from somewhere. Sophomore guard Jessi Tomasin emerged as a three-point threat off the bench as a freshman and has to continue to improve, although she's been bothered by a knee sprain. Fellow sophs Chantelle Wilson and Shaunna Ambrose also have to contribute.

"Our biggest question is whether we'll be able to shoot like we have in the past," Agronin said. "We haven't picked up Colleen Toetz's scoring. We'll have to spread it around to get those points."

Outlook: After 38 wins the last two years, this is a rebuilding season. But Agronin knows his team won't collapse to an 0-9 start like it did three years ago before rallying to finish that season 9-19.

"We have girls from winning programs, be it here or high school. Eva is the only person still around from 0-9," he said.

"I'm not so sure how we'll be early on but by the end of the year we'll be OK. I know this group won't accept losing."

The Purple Eagles will ride Cunningham to a few wins and their kiddie corps will get better as the conference schedule begins. Eighth place in the MAAC is probably too low for a program that's gotten used to finishing in the top half of the MAAC the last two years and has gone 31-12 in its last 43 league games. Look for NU to win 14 games and be a dangerous opponent in the MAAC Tournament in HSBC Arena.
e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com