Juniors Step Up a Year Early

Without senior leadership, the Crimson’s four juniors will need to grow up in a hurry

Benjamin K Nissan

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Most successful college teams boast a few solid seniors to provide leadership and keep the team in check. The four seniors of last year’s Harvard women’s basketball team could do all this and more, and the Crimson rode these veterans to an 11-3 Ivy League record.

A loss to Dartmouth in the final game of last season took away the squad’s hopes of an Ivy League title, but Harvard received a berth in the NIT. The Crimson was unable to overcome St. John’s in the first round, and that 83-60 loss brought two campaigns to a close—the team’s season and the careers of its four seniors, leaving behind a very young Harvard team.

The normal chain of leadership would be for the team’s juniors to come back the next year as seniors and take the reins for another title run. But here’s the catch: there were no juniors on last year’s squad. That means that this year’s leaders for the Crimson will be its four juniors: Jackie Alemany, Emma Markley, and co-captains Christine Matera and Claire Wheeler.

“We’re very young,” Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith says. “I’ve never had a team this young, and they are dramatically different than any team that I’ve had in a while with regards to their potential.”

With the graduation of perennial All-Ivy guard and co-captain Emily Tay, Harvard—and particularly its junior class—needs to take up the leadership and court dominance that Tay so effortlessly accomplished.

Tay’s classmates, Katie Rollins and Emma Moretzsohn, provided a daunting presence in the paint. Rounding out the talented 2009 class was co-captain Niki Finelli, who could score in bunches when she had the hot hand.

“We have some pretty big shoes that we have to fill,” Markley says. “It’s kind of scary that we’re filling these leadership roles a year early, but it’s really exciting.”

Though it may seem intimidating to be thrust into such an important role so soon, the squad’s junior class seems confident that it will be able to make the adjustment fluently.

“We’ve kind of changed the dynamic of our team,” Wheeler says. “We have better chemistry now. The upperclassmen have done a really good job of setting the tone, being tough, and bringing the competitive desire to win.”

“That’s what happens when a player like Emily Tay leaves,” Delaney-Smith adds. “There’s a whole host of players that say, ‘We need to step up,’ and they do.”

The Crimson’s junior class understands the task that lies ahead of it. The players are confident in themselves and their teammates, and they are certain that they have what it takes to get the job done this season.

“We all have different strengths,” Alemany says. “[Wheeler] is a legitimate post player. She’s got the size and the strength. She’s a great defender, and she’s a very effective communicator. [Markley] is our scorer. She’s our go-to girl. She can score 20 points in a matter of minutes. [Matera] is a pure shooter. We all work very well together.”

For the class of juniors, the cream of the crop is Markley. The athletic forward led the team in two categories last season, averaging 14 points and seven rebounds per game. Markley was fifth in the league in scoring and sixth in rebounding as a sophomore and should take over as the team’s primary scorer this season in Tay’s absence. Opposing teams have needed to pay attention to Markley since she arrived two years ago after transferring from Princeton, and the Ancient Eight will do well to keep an eye on the quick, slashing junior once again.

Wheeler, Delaney-Smith noted, is the team’s primary power player this year. At forward, she will be important when her team needs some size in the paint. Alemany, who is considered by her teammates to be a defensive terror for opponents, rounds off the three-junior rotation down low.

That leaves Matera as the only guard in her class. A confident shooter from long range, Matera made a third of her 123 three-point attempts as a sophomore. She is a player who leads both vocally and by example, and earned the co-captain’s role after playing in all 29 of the Crimson’s games last year.

“[Matera] doesn’t let herself work less than 100 percent,” Wheeler says. “She has no problem holding her teammates accountable, which is absolutely necessary for a successful team.”

While the gang of four is a year early in the usual evolution of leadership, it’s not a year short. Each junior has played crucial minutes during her first two seasons in crimson and white, and Harvard took its push for an Ivy title down to its final game in both seasons. In its freshman year, the Class of 2011 tasted the sweetness of a league crown but had to share it. Last year, it experienced the bitterness of giving up a chance at the championship to Dartmouth in the season finale.

This year, these juniors are ready to restore the Crimson’s position as outright champions, and they know all the work that they have to do to see that goal through.

“We’ve been able to learn many things that have prepared us for our role,” Alemany says. “We’ve come a long way since freshman year.”

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