Big 4 programs find their niches of excellence

What stands out when assessing the five-year track record of Big 4 women’s athletic programs is that every school has its niche.

For St. Bonaventure, women’s basketball reigns as the signature program. The Bonnies won the Atlantic 10 regular season this year and accomplished a Big 4 women’s first – a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. That makes it four straight trips to the postseason for Bona, the first three consisting of trips to the WNIT. And, significantly, the Bonnies have at least temporarily warded off big-time/big-money programs by signing coach Jim Crowley to a contract extension.

At Niagara, volleyball continues to sizzle. The Purple Eagles won their third straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title and its accompanying NCAA berth last season. But they couldn’t repel the suitors as coach Susan Clements left for Wright State. Taking her place is Dottie Porch, who most recently served as an assistant at Pitt, George Mason and Indiana.

Canisius is blossoming in lacrosse at a time when MAAC leaders have voted to place greater emphasis on the sport by expanding scholarship allotments and coaching staffs. The Griffs have ridden MAAC titles to NCAA Tournament play-in games each of the last two seasons.

Meanwhile, the University at Buffalo continues to thrive in track and field. Asia Henry advanced to the NCAAs and earned second-team All-America honors in the women’s 800 meters, while Anna Holmes captured the 400 hurdles at the Mid-American Conference championships. Achievement in running events is new ground for the Bulls, who annually excel in field events. Vanessa Roelofsen (javelin), Tiffany Maskulinski (pole vault), Kristy Woods (shot put) and Becky O’Brien (shot and discus) have all qualified for the NCAA Championships since 2008, either indoor, outdoor or both.

Barbara Questa, senior associate athletic director at St. Bonaventure, might be speaking for athletic administrators everywhere when describing how success in one sport can affect a program as a whole.

“First of all it validates the hard work the coaches have done and the athletes have done,” Questa said. “I think it solidifies our standing in the Atlantic 10 Conference that while we may not go in seeded every year in women’s basketball in the Atlantic 10 we are certainly very competitive and can remain competitive in the Atlantic 10.

“From an institution standpoint, I think it helps all our programs to recognize that, hey, here’s a program that has its limitations in this area but they can be successful. They’ve made a splash nationally. If they can do it why can’t we do it in our sport?”

Retaining coaches can become a challenge for mid-major programs like those in the Big 4. Niagara knew that Clements, having put the program on the map, would be targeted by other institutions capable of making a greater financial commitment to women’s volleyball. On the flip side, in proving that the Purple Eagles could field a competitive program, the caliber of prospective replacements broadened.

“Coach Clements, what she did with this program turned it completely around,” said Porch, the new Niagara coach. “It’s a true testament to her work and dedication and again to the athletic department definitely investing into the program. When you have those things together it does definitely bode well.

“I was looking for a successful program or somewhere that had good volleyball support,” she said. “The schools that I’ve been at – George Mason, IU, Pitt – all had really good volleyball support through the athletic department. So I wanted to make sure that I went into a program where I was going to be able to have the tools to be successful.”

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