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Rare uncertainty atop MAAC brings optimism

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference saw some change at the top last season, as it was won by the Quinnipiac Bobcats, who were unbeaten in conference play. What does this season have in store for the Bobcats, who lost a lot of key pieces from that dominant team, as well as other contenders Marist and Fairfield?

Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference was won last year by a team not named Marist for the first since 2005, so it's easy to understand why no one is sure what to expect from this conference this season.

The Quinnipiac Bobcats represented the conference in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, after they beat the Red Foxes in the MAAC Tournament Championship, 72-61. Quinnipiac finally overtook Marist after losing to the Red Foxes in the conference tournament championship in 2014, the Bobcats first year in the conference.

Quinnipiac did not only have postseason success last year; the Bobcats won the most regular season games in program history (31) and became the first MAAC team to go undefeated through conference play, winning all 23 conference matchups.

Tricia Fabbri enters her 21st season as head coach at Quinnipiac with 325 career wins, making her the winningest coach in program history. Fabbri is looking for her fifth straight 20-win season, and fourth straight appearance in a conference championship game.

Fabbri's "Gold Rush" substituting strategy allows her to take advantage of the depth on the team by subbing in five players at a time. The Bobcats once again have the depth to implement this strategy, despite losing five senior starters from last year's team.

"We're not going to stray from our strength, which has been in numbers," Fabbri said. "Looking at our roster and rotation, we used 11 players consistently last year, and I don't anticipate us going away from using our entire roster this year. That's always been our success, is the strength from our numbers. It's a proven style of how we win ball games."

Quinnipiac has the second-highest winning percentage of New England Division I schools since the 2011-12 season. The Bobcats have won 78 percent of their games during that stretch, trailing only national power UConn.

Quinnipiac will be looking to make their second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years, and their third appearance overall, by once again knocking off Marist, who before last year had won nine-straight MAAC Championships.

The Red Foxes will be led by senior Sydney Coffee and sixth-year senior Tori Jarosz, who were both named to the preseason All-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference First Team. Marist was voted to finish second in the Conference in the Preseason Coaches' Poll, behind Fairfield University.

The Stags received five first-place votes in that poll, and are selected to win the MAAC title for the first time since 2003. Fairfield returns 88 percent of their scoring from last year, and is looking to improve upon last year's team that reached the MAAC Semifinals.

"Being picked first means that, on paper, people think we have a chance to be really good," Stags head coach Joe Frager said. "Our goal for the season is the same as every team in our conference: we want to win the MAAC. That goal remains the same regardless of where we are picked."

Quinnipiac, despite winning the conference last year, was picked to finish third this year after losing MAAC Tournament Most Valuable Player Jasmine Martin and Samantha Guastella. This year's younger Bobcats team will be led by last year's MAAC Sixth Player of the Year, Maria Napolitano.

Napolitano was named captain, along with senior forward Katie Carroll, junior guard Adily Martucci and sophomore guard Carly Fabbri. Coach Fabbri says having four captains is a first, but is something she thinks will help her talented, but untested team.

"Our four captains have stepped in and done a great job of leading this young team since the start of the offseason," Fabbri said. "It just shows the respect and admiration each of these four young ladies have in the eyes of our players and coaching staff. I like our process and how we select our leaders. We've done it the same way for a number of years, and the process has selected and chosen the right players every time, and I think this year is no different."

Despite their talent, Quinnipiac only had one player named to a preseason All-Conference team. Napolitano was selected to the third team, which speaks to the depth that the Bobcats will have to rely on this season to compete for a MAAC Championship.

Iona senior forward Joy Adams was named the conference's preseason Player of the Year, and joins Marist's Coffey and Jarosz on the First Team, along with the Stags' Casey Smith and Niagara's Victoria Rampado.

The winner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this season will look to build on the success the conference has had in the big dance in recent years. The Red Foxes won five NCAA Tournament games during their nine-year run atop the MAAC, and appeared in the Sweet 16 once, in 2007.

Last year's Bobcats' team lost in the Round of 64 to five-seed Oklahoma by 27 points. This year's conference winner will be looking to do some damage in the NCAA Tournament, potentially as this March's Cinderella story.