Somerset, NJ - Sacred Heart sophomore point guard Alisa Apo (Freehold, NJ/St. John Vianney) collected her second major Northeast Conference women's basketball honor in two year's time when the league hosted its annual awards banquet Friday on the eve of the 2009 NEC Tournament presented by esurance. Apo, the 2008 NEC Rookie of the Year, received the league's 2009 Player of the Year award while her team claimed the regular season champions' trophy, a product of its perfect 18-0 conference record. Long Island freshman forward Ashley Palmer (Oxford, PA/Oxford Area) took Apo's former title of NEC Rookie of the Year. Quinnipiac senior guard Brianna Rooney (Guilford, CT/Guilford) won her second consecutive NEC Defensive Player of the Year award while Sacred Heart head coach Ed Swanson repeated as the Brenda C. Reilly NEC Coach of the Year. In addition to its major awards, the NEC named its all-conference first and second teams along with an all-rookie squad.
The mythical sophomore slump clearly does not apply to the Pioneers' point guard. Apo becomes only the second player in NEC history, joining the legendary Jess Zinobile (Saint Francis (PA)), to follow up her NEC Rookie of the Year selection by winning the Player of the Year award the very next season. Apo has ranked amongst the conference's top-five most-accurate three-point shooters during each of her first two collegiate seasons, the latter of which saw her move over to the point guard position. Thriving in her new role as the Pioneers' floor general, she led the team in scoring (16.9), assists (121), and steals (37).
Apo is responsible for 55 of Sacred Heart's 195 three-pointers, one short of the NEC lead this season. The sophomore sharpshooter has dialed long distance exactly 100 times during her career, and is not afraid to take it inside either. The New Jersey native, who spent her high school career at perennial Shore Conference power St. John Vianney, is a true triple threat. She owns the league's third-ranked assist-to-turnover ratio and her 4.17 assists per game are fifth amongst NEC leaders. Using her ability to drive and draw contact, Apo made 160 trips to the free throw line this season where she hits 81.3 percent of her shots. Quarterbacking the NEC's top-ranked scoring offense (69.3 ppg), Apo, the only Pioneer to start all 29 games, totaled 491 points.
Palmer's presence in the lineup was undoubtedly a welcomed sight for first-year LIU head coach Gail Striegler. The 5-foot-10 post player was the team's leading scorer and the only Blackbird to start in all 29 games. Although it did not result in a NEC Tournament berth for the Blackbirds, Palmer's freshman campaign was as statistically strong as any in the league's 23-year history of women's basketball. The top freshman scorer in NCAA Division I this season, Palmer won seven Choice Hotels NEC Rookie of the Week awards to tie former SHU standout Amanda Pape for third-most in league annals. Palmer matched another one of Pape's freshman feats by becoming the first NEC rookie in five years to rank amongst the league's top-10 in both scoring and rebounding. The Long Island freshman finished the regular season as the NEC's fourth-ranked scorer (17.1 ppg) and second-best rebounder (9.3 rpg). The overpowering Palmer led all NEC rookies in piling up 13 double-doubles (second overall in the NEC). Only the second player in Long Island history to sink more than 200 field goals in a single season, Palmer made a league-high 208 shots on her way to 497 total points.
Rooney becomes the fourth different two-time NEC Defensive Player of the Year honoree in the 10-year history of the award. Her repeat selection comes after she helped the Bobcats hold opponents under a .390 field goal percentage for a second consecutive season. Making a NEC-best 70 steals, Rooney was a key reason why Quinnipiac forced a league-high 20.4 turnovers per game while leading the conference with 275 team steals (9.82/g). The combo guard, who grabbed more than 100 rebounds for the second straight season, leads the NEC in three statistical categories. In addition to thefts, Rooney has the league's top assist-to-turnover ratio (2.28) for the second straight year while posting the top free throw percentage (.887).
Swanson collects his third-ever NEC Coach of the Year award after both he and his Pioneers made history. Sacred Heart became only the third team, joining the 1993-94 Mount St. Mary's and 2003-04 Saint Francis (PA) squads of yesteryear, to complete an undefeated run through an 18-game NEC schedule. The Pioneers' fifth of 18 conference victories, an 83-70 win over Robert Morris (Jan. 10), gave Swanson 125 for his career and moved him past former Mount coaching legend Bill Sheahan for the all-time conference lead. Swanson and the late Sheahan are the only two head coaches to win the NEC Coach of the Year award at least three times, with the latter winning it on a record four occasions. The wins have piled up for Swanson since Sacred Heart joined the NEC in 1999. In the midst of its fourth 20-win season at the NCAA Division I level, SHU has won at least 18 games in each of the past eight seasons.
Sacred Heart senior center Kaitlin Sowinski (Hopkinton, RI/Tabor Academy) joined Apo on the five-member All-Northeast Conference First Team, which features four seniors who also appeared together on the preseason all-NEC squad. Ironically, Apo, the lone underclassman of the group, is the only first team selection that did not receive preseason all-league recognition. Monmouth fourth-year forward Jennifer Bender (Staten Island, NY/Staten Island Tech), Robert Morris senior guard Sade Logan (Knoxville, TN/Chattanooga State), and Quinnipiac's veteran point guard Erin Kerner (Erie, PA/Mercyhurst) all lived up to their preseason billing and are no strangers to all-NEC accolades. Bender was a second team selection as a junior while the latter two names were all-NEC first teamers a year ago.
Sowinski led the Northeast Conference in both field goal percentage (.526) and blocks (2.83 bpg), the latter for a second consecutive season, to pick up a second straight all-NEC first team honor. A fierce presence in the post, the 6-foot-4 Sowinski was again one of four NEC players to rank amongst the league's top-10 performers in both scoring (15.1 ppg) and rebounding (7.2 rpg) as she held the eighth spot in each category. Her size and footwork have aided her in becoming one of the nation's top shot blockers. Her 81 blocks over 29 games this year rank her 13th amongst NCAA leaders after ranking fifth in the country by rejecting 101 shots last season.
Logan, the 2008 NEC Player of the Year, can pile up points as fast as anyone in the nation. After missing the first seven games of her senior season recovering from a shoulder ailment, the veteran markswoman promptly returned to her all-conference form and claimed her second straight NEC scoring title. She has scored 487 points in 23 games (21.2 ppg) a year after pouring in 815 points to demolish the NEC single-season record. Possessing the innate ability to find the hole from anywhere on the court, Logan has eclipsed the 20-point mark in 38 of 56 games, including 12 30-plus-point efforts, during her two-year RMU tenure. Logan, who leads the conference by a 10-shot margin, has nailed 78 three-point field goals for a two-season total of 204.
Kerner earned back-to-back first team all-NEC selections after powering Quinnipiac to its fourth top-four NEC finish in as many seasons. One of the NEC's top scorers in recent years, Erin Kerner has tallied more points (1,770) than anyone in the Bobcat's NCAA Division I history. The second-most prolific scorer all time at Quinnipiac, she shoots well from all areas of the floor and can break down any defense with her strong step to the basket. Kerner has hit 108 three pointers over the past two years (45 this year; 63 last). The versatile guard can dish it off the dribble, too, as evidenced by her 69 assists. A leader on defense as well, Kerner has 52 steals this season to rank seventh in the Northeast Conference. One of five NEC players to have made more than 100 free throws this season, Kerner owns the NEC's fifth-highest percentage (.823) from the charity stripe.
Bender ranked amongst the league's top 10 in both scoring and rebounding for a second consecutive year while improving her numbers in both categories. The 6-foot-1 forward stands sixth amongst the NEC's best in scoring (16.2 ppg) and fifth in rebounding (7.9 rpg). An athletic presence in the post, Bender can score from the block or step back and sink a baseline jumper. Her athleticism often brings her to the free throw line where her 134 makes are second-most in the conference. An effective defender as well, she started all 29 games for the NEC's No. 1 scoring defense (54.1 ppg).
Although she is the lone rookie, Palmer is one of three underclassmen on the all-NEC second team. Central Connecticut State sophomore Kerrianne Dugan (Waterford, CT/Waterford) and Saint Francis (PA) Samantha Leach (Mount Sterling, OH/Miami Trace) captured all-league accolades as a result of their roles in two of the nation's top turnaround stories. Both players helped their respective clubs move for a last-place tie in the 2007-08 standings to a top-three finish this season. Robert Morris junior Monet Johnson (Brooklyn, NY/Monroe CC) and St. Francis (NY) senior Kara Ayers (Galloway, NJ/Absegami) comprise the upper-class contingent of the second team squad.
Dugan, an all-rookie selection last season, was a key factor in Central Connecticut State's 13-game turnaround, which is the best throughout the NCAA Division I ranks. An across-the-board contributor, the second-year Blue Devil is the second-leading scorer (11.6 ppg) on a balanced CCSU attack while ranking third in rebounding (5.8 rpg), second in steals (45), second in assists (85), second in field goals made (118), and first in minutes played (35.1/g). As the Blue Devils wins increased, moving from four to 17, so did Dugan's accuracy from the field. The lone CCSU player to start all 29 contests sits fifth (.474) amongst NEC field goal percentage leaders after shooting only 38.9 percent as a freshman when she led the Blue Devils in scoring at 10.0 points per contest.
The first Saint Francis (PA) player to capture all-NEC honors since former two-time NEC Player of the Year Beth Swink's 2004-05 first team selection, Leach led the resurgent Red Flash in scoring (12.8 ppg) and field goals made (146). Leach was one of four Flash to average double figures thanks to a five-point improvement on her rookie mark (7.8 ppg). Only the sophomore guard from Mount Sterling, OH started all 29 games for Saint Francis in a season during which it increased its NEC win total (11) by eight from that of the prior year.
Johnson performed as advertised in her first season after transferring to Robert Morris. A forward with superior athletic ability, she averaged a double-double during Monroe's NJCAA championship run last year and had little trouble adjusting to the Division I ranks. The 5-foot-11 New York City native was the only NEC player to average a double-double and the first since the 2006-07 campaign when three league all-stars achieved the feat. The league's rebounding champion (10.6 rpg) ranked seventh amongst the scoring leaders (16.0 ppg). Johnson hit for team-high 183 field goals, grabbed 100 offensive boards, and posted a league-leading 17 double-doubles.
Ayers finds herself on the all-NEC second team following a big bounce-back year. The always-effective Ayers ranked second on the 2007-08 Terriers in both scoring and rebounding, but her impact was limited to 12 starts the entire season due to injury. This time around, the senior guard started 26 games, averaged the third-most minutes (38.2/g) played in the conference, and finished the regular season as the NEC's second-ranked scorer (19.2 ppg). Her 500 points this season put her well beyond the 1,000-point mark for her career. She joined the 1K Club with her first of 15 points against Quinnipiac on January 19.
The 2008-09 NEC All-Rookie Team consists of Palmer, two New Jersey natives, and a player from each side of the SHU-CCSU Nutmeg State rivalry. Monmouth freshman Alexis Scott (Somerset, NJ/Franklin) and Fairleigh Dickinson freshman Mariyah Laury (Orange, NJ/Orange) now play collegiate ball in the Garden State after enjoying illustrious high school careers in New Jersey. Scott averaged 8.6 points and 4.6 rebounds over 31.5 minutes per game while Laury was the fourth-ranked rookie scorer in the nation thanks to her team-leading 14.8 points per contest. Freshman point guard Shontice Simmons (Fort Washington, MD/Academy of Holy Cross) was a huge addition for the resurgent CCSU Blue Devils. She averaged 12.4 points and 4.2 boards per game while dishing out 102 assists. Meanwhile, Sacred Heart freshman Callan Taylor (Overland Park, KS/Blue Valley North) ranked amongst the NEC's top-five overall leaders in field goal percentage (second), three-point field goal percentage (first), and free throw shooting (second).