Ever since it became the first Big 4 school to earn a bid to the NCAA women's basketball tournament, Canisius has been surrounded by high expectations.
Trying to gain that automatic bid this year will be a test of survival, though. The Golden Griffins are plagued with early-season injuries and nagging health concerns that may prevent them from living up to their potential.
Let's start with Amanda Cavo. Though she was hampered by pain in her shins last year, she still was the cog that made the Canisius offense go.
The guard started 29 games as a sophomore and tied for the team lead in scoring, averaging 10.8 points a game. The coaching staff shut her down during practice for parts of last year, suspecting she had tendinitis in both her shins. It turns out she actually had stress fractures in her shins. Her practice time might be limited, but her playing time likely will not be. Cavo has brought a strong, focused mentality to the court since she arrived as freshman -- one that wills her body to do things it otherwise would reject.
Complementing Cavo in the backcourt is sophomore Brittane Russell. A member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's All-Rookie Team last year, Russell averaged 9.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. She led all MAAC freshmen in steals, assists, three-point field goals per game, three-point shooting percentage and minutes per game.
Canisius will call on three upperclassmen to help fill the low post void left by the graduation of Megan Lyte and Abby Radunske. Without those two, who often powered the Griffs' offense, look for Canisius to use the high-low pass less often and instead let their posts play with their back to the basket.
J.J. Williams is working her way into the lineup after suffering back injuries that forced her to redshirt the 2005-06 season. She played in 27 games and started eight.
Also back is senior Laura Buetow, who played in 29 games with no starts last year, averaging 2.9 points and 4.2 rebounds. Head coach Terry Zeh said Buetow has gained some confidence in the offseason, an element that was lacking from her game in the past.
Mere Mullins enters her senior season after playing limited roles throughout her career, due in part to the presence of Lyte and Radunske. Last year, she played in just 11 games, averaging 10.3 minutes, but Zeh believes Mullins will make an impact this year.
"I don't think I've done a good job at getting Mere minutes in the past," Zeh said. "When I've called on her, she's done a good job for us. Whenever she played, she did well."
Numbers. Quite frankly, the Griffs are just banged up beyond belief with about seven healthy players practicing each day.
"For the first time ever I've used male practice players," Zeh said. "The competition has helped us because they're big and fast and strong. They're not necessarily great basketball players but they've really helped us in practice."
While Cavo and Williams are enduring nagging injuries, freshman guard Tauralee Tenn tore her Achilles in preseason workouts. Sophomore Ellie Radke, who showed flashes of promise her rookie season, was hit by a car in August and is still suffering from post-concussion syndrome. If and when both those players return are major questions.
The non-conference schedule is more difficult for the Griffs this year and that was a purposeful move by Zeh, who felt his team was underprepared for the MAAC season last year. Games at Notre Dame, Missouri State and Saint Louis won't be easy, but should have Canisius ready to go for conference play.
When it comes to the MAAC, Marist is the clear favorite followed by . . . everyone else. It will be slugfest to see who comes in second and earns the right to face the Red Foxes in the title game. If the Griffs stay healthy, they should hover around .500 in conference but a short bench could prevent them from living up to potential this season.