It was just a few minutes after her Manhattan College women’s basketball team came out on the short end of a 79-48 decision against Stony Brook. Yet head coach Heather Vulin was smiling. Even upbeat.
Yes, her Jaspers had just struggled mightily against a Seawolves team that used a 27-8 second quarter to propel them to the lopsided win. But there was Vulin, now in her third season as head coach at Manhattan, ticking off the reasons why she believes in this team so much, and why outcomes like last Saturday’s will soon be the exception rather than the norm.
“This is the most talented team I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Vulin said, that smile growing larger as she spoke. “Everyone who is on this roster is someone that we’ve identified and brought in. I’m very excited for what we have here.”
Two seasons ago, in her first year at the helm, Vulin struggled through a forgettable 8-22 season, including a 4-16 mark in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. But that was a season that saw players of the previous coaching regime dotting the roster — even some very talented athletes like Kayla Grimme and Amani Tatum.
But Vulin had yet to put her fingerprints on her program.
Last year, Vulin guided the Jaspers to 13 overall wins and a solid 9-9 mark in the MAAC, good for sixth place. There was also a win in the conference tournament over Iona before losing in the quarterfinals to eventual tournament finalist Marist.
Now with a roster comprised of four freshmen, five sophomores, five juniors and a grad student — there are no seniors — Vulin scheduled a very challenging non-conference schedule this season in order to have her young team battle-tested once the conference season begins in early January. Opponents such as Albany, Drexel, St. Francis, Fordham and Stony Brook were all selected in the top three of their respective conference preseason polls, so this is no cupcake schedule.
“I really have a lot of respect for our conference, the MAAC, and so I really wanted to go out and find teams that would really get us ready for MAAC play,” Vulin said. “Right now we’re a one-bid league (for the NCAA Tournament), so if you’re not going to win the MAAC, then you’re not going anywhere.”
Vulin lined up one stiff test after another in order to gauge the growth of her young team. And although the Jaspers are off to a 1-3 start — with two of the losses coming by just six points and both on the road — she thinks some early-season pain will result in some late-season gain.
“Obviously in the non-conference you want to win every game you can, but I don’t want to give my team a false sense of confidence of where we’re at,” Vulin said. “Stony Brook is picked second in their league, and they showed what you need to do and how to do it. Hats off to them. I don’t want to take anything away from them, but I just felt with my young team we just didn’t know how to handle the adversity yet. But we’re going to get there.”
Vulin’s roster is mix of local flavor and European flair. Nine of her players — reigning MAAC rookie of the week D’Yona Davis, Gabby Cajou, Kania Pollock, Lynette Taitt, Lizahya Morgan, Sydney Watkins, Nyala Pendergrass, Diamond Shavis and Pamela Miceus — hail from the tri-state area, with Courtney Warley calling Pennsylvania home. Sini Makela and Tuuli Menna come to Riverdale from Finland. Julie Hoier is from Denmark,. Emma Bedeker arrives from Canada. And grad student Candela Abejon is from Spain.
It’s a melting pot Vulin thinks will bubble into a team to be reckoned with in the MAAC before all is said and done.
“They have definitely shown fight and they have shown improvement,” the coach said. “Like I said, it’s definitely the most talent we’ve had, but as I told them after the Albany game (a 60-54 loss on Nov. 2), ‘I need you guys to grow up quick. I don’t want to wait until Game 7 or Game 8, and then you figure it out because then we have wasted the whole non-conference schedule. Let’s start having some fun and doing things the right way.’
“I believe in this team, and I’m excited for the future of the program.”
The Jaspers play six of their next seven games at Draddy Gym, starting with a Saturday matchup with Detroit Mercy at 2 p.m. Vulin hopes area hoop fans will jump on the Jasper bandwagon during their extended home stay.
“We love playing at Draddy,” she said, “and we’re just trying to get more people in the community to know about us and want and come support a really fun style of play.”