Merrimack College head women’s basketball coach Monique LeBlanc never expected it to be a smooth transition from Division II NCAA basketball and competing in the Northeast 10 Conference, to Merrimack, entering its first full-fledged Division I program in the Northeast Conference.
Yet the Warriors have already won five games, scored 60 points or more in seven of their eight games, beat Atlantic 10 Conference and regional foe UMass-Amherst in its debut game, and upstaged an Ivy League opponent in Brown.
And earlier this week, LeBlanc and the Warriors nearly pocketed their best win yet, battling through 14 lead changes, hitting 13 3-point field goals but eventually losing a three-point game on the road to seven-win Big Ten school Illinois.
“I think we are ready. Really nothing is that much different,” Attleboro High product Emily Houle, the Warriors’ senior guard said of the transition to Division I, which added road trips to Bryant University and Long Island University, Robert Morris and Wagner among others.
“We haven’t changed who we are, drill-wise, situation-wise. We push each other even harder than we ever have,” Houle said. “We’ve just raised our standards.”
With just four seniors on the roster, including All-Northeast 10 Conference 6-foot-1 center-forward Denia Davis-Stewart of Dorchester, LeBlanc and Houle truly believe that the Warriors can be competitive in every game.
“I don’t think it would have happened if we were not ready,” Houle said. “I think we have full confidence in ourselves with the transition happening.
“Knowing that we’re the underdogs now, that will give us the edge to help us define us and help move us forward.”
LeBlanc and the Warriors are coming off of a 20-win season.
“We were coming off of a strong season and we had some confidence there,” she said. “Also, some of our other fall teams at Merrimack had success. The men’s soccer team won its conference in year number one (of Division 1 action) and seeing other teams have success, that helps too.
“As a coach I kept saying to people, I was so familiar with the Northeast 10, our former conference. You have a pulse on how you think you should do against other teams. I kept battling. I want to make sure our team felt super confident and then I also don’t want them to feel awful if we’re not having a super hot start.
“We can compete.”
LeBlanc, the former Bishop Feehan hoopster who played for coach Mike Deady, is in her ninth season as the head coach at Merrimack. She has 113 career wins (within nine of becoming the winningest coach in any sport) and three seasons of 15 or more wins. Her squad has advanced to post-season play six times with five visits to the Northeast 10 Conference championship game.
In addition, LeBlanc serves as an associate athletic director, participating in strategic planning, establishing athletic department policy in coordination with NCAA guidelines, reviewing NCAA compliance procedures and being a voice for the Warriors in numerous conference and community projects. “You have to stay on top the rules,” she said. “They’re changing constantly.”
And two of Merrimack’s three losses have been winnable games, falling by four points in overtime to Lehigh and bowing by five points at Dartmouth.
Houle has appeared in seven games, averaging five points per contest. She has taken down 18 rebounds, dished out seven assists and made four steals, while hitting four 3-pointers.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, everything that comes with it offensively, defensively,” LeBlanc said of the transition. “Maybe size across the board, most nights we’re going to see teams that have players bigger than us, player for player. But that doesn’t always mean everything.
“I don’t know the Division I teams as well as Division II teams. I don’t know our new league as well as our former league. And so for me, I just tried to focus on us being the best that we can be — reaching our potential as a unit collectively.”
Houle has appeared in six games for the Warriors this season, averaging 13 minutes and 4.5 points.
“I don’t think it’s just hoping to win a couple of games or finish .500,” she said. “We know that we belong. We’ve proven it and it’s only going to continue to get better.”
Just last week in a 15-point win at the Pizzitola Center over Sarah Behn’s Brown University Bears, Merrimack showed its muster.
The Warriors got points out of only six of 16 possessions in the first quarter. Merrimack shot just 6-for-17 in the second quarter with points on six of 18 possessions, trailing by as many as nine points, but reducing the gap to 31-29 by halftime.
Then the Warriors shot 50 percent (9-for-18) from the floor in the third quarter, getting points on six straight possessions and taking a 53-42 lead with four minutes left.
By game’s end, Merrimack had 16 assists on its 24 field goals, while reducing Brown to 33 percent shooting (23-for-69, 3-for-18 on 3-pointers) in the game.
LeBlanc, Houle and the Warriors compiled a 20-win season last year (with two freshmen and a new point guard). They were unbeaten in non-conference play and had a six-game win streak during the second half of the season — the longest for Merrimack in 14 seasons.
LeBlanc also pointed to her Merrimack teams twice winning the Northeast 10 Conference Academic Achievement Award. LeBlanc spent three seasons as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Northern Arizona University, where she completed her graduate studies. During her tenure there, Northern Arizona had a team GPA of 3.4 that ranked No. 13 nationally among Division I programs did her graduate work.
LeBlanc’s road from Bishop Feehan took her to Bucknell University, where she graduated with a double major in Economics and Mathematics in 2002 in addition to being a four-year player and a two-time captain.
In Lewisburg, Pa, LeBlanc led the Bison women’s basketball team to its first ever Patriot League championship and to a pair of 20-win seasons. She earned the Bison Award for “work ethic and commitment” and the Defensive MVP honor.
“I can still make my free throws,” LeBlanc said of her signature swishes.
The practices that LeBlanc runs this season are the same as last season. There are still film review sessions, scouting reports to scour and meeting with team academic advisers.
“About the only thing that is different is that the bus rides are a bit longer and in different spots,” she said. “People ask me about the transition all the time and you know what, the day-to-day stuff is really similar. We have the same staff (including North Attleboro’s Tyler Patch). Our team standards are our team standards.
“I hate to even make .500 a goal because what if we can do better? A .500 season would be great in our first year in Division I, in a new league, but I’ve always felt that we can always do better.
“A lot of coaches in basketball say 20 wins, that’s a great season. So if you set that goal, what if you should have had 22? What if you have 19, does that mean you didn’t have a good season? We just try to zoom in on what’s in front of us. and see if we can win that next game.”