The influence that freshmen have on many college teams is sometimes so incidental, it goes unnoticed during a long and grueling basketball season. On Hawk Hill, it’s quite a different story.
So far, the St. Joe’s women’s basketball team has seen flashes of excellence from some of the youngest members of the squad. This season, the Hawks (6-12, 2-4 Atlantic 10) may be the only team in the country to have four freshmen win their league’s Rookie of the Week award. Talya Brugler, Laila Fair, Julia Nyström, and Mackenzie Smith are part of an impressive class of freshmen on Hawk Hill who each bring a unique skill to the court.
At the start of the recruiting process, it was vital for the Hawks to have a strong incoming freshman class. After all, half of their current roster consisted of juniors and seniors. As coach Cindy Griffin pointed out, between planning for the future of the roster and having COVID-19 affect their season again, integrating the freshman class was crucial.
“We knew that they would have an impact or they would be playing minutes,” Griffin said. “But we didn’t know how many impact minutes they were going to be able to earn at that point.”
As injuries began to befall some of the veterans, opportunity arose for the newcomers, starting with Brugler.
Brugler, a 6-foot-1 forward from Nazareth, Pa., is averaging 9.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game so far this season. She has been a focal point for the Hawks’ inside scoring and rebounding, which she feels are the best skills that she brings to the team.
“My rebounding and my ability to score around the basket and just being in the right places at the right time for my teammates,” Brugler said. “Little things like that can just go a long way for the team.”
Arguably, Brugler’s best performance this season came in a 74-54 win over Richmond when she demonstrated her double-double potential, going for 17 points and 13 rebounds. Brugler has claimed the A-10 Rookie of the Week award three times this season.
She isn’t the only freshman forward turning heads on the St. Joe’s frontcourt. Fair, a 6-2 player from Middlesex, N.J., is averaging 7.5 points in 11 games along with eight blocks overall. Fair excelled in a victory against Penn when she scored 20 points and had 11 rebounds along with a block and a steal.
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Aside from her scoring ability, Fair values her defense and offensive rebounding as her most valuable contributions for the Hawks.
“I want to help with protecting the rim in general,” Fair said. “Whenever someone’s in the paint, that’s my spot to step up and help the scene. I also want to keep on focusing on getting offensive rebounds to help get another possession for the team.”
Two other freshmen who make up this promising core for the Hawks are the international students, Nyström from Lund, Sweden, and Smith from East Jordan, Nova Scotia. A lot of Griffin’s praise goes to this pair, as she knew the advantage of having players with high-level experience join the roster.
“[They] have had a lot of experience playing against not only international competition at their own age but also playing with and against women in some of the leagues that they’ve been playing in,” Griffin said. “They’re familiar with the speed of the game and obviously our three-point shooting line isn’t back, so that was an easy transition for them because they play with that [expanded] line.”
An easy transition is a bit of an understatement for how the two have been shooting from deep. Smith leads the Atlantic 10 in three-point field goal percentage (47.6%) and Nyström showed her shooting ability in an excellent performance against Harvard when she went 4-for-7 from beyond the arc and finished with 18 points. Smith, who has 20 threes so far this season while averaging 8.5 points per game, said that while there was an adjustment period for her to get used to the differences between Canadian and American basketball, her shooting has obviously been her best attribute.
“It’s something I really worked on before I got here and I think the work that I put in is kind of coming out in the games,” she said.
For Nyström, it’s been her defense that she feels has been the reason for her improvement.
“Being able to put pressure on the ball … I’ve always liked to play defense,” said Nyström, who’s averaging a steal per game. “That’s always been a big part of my game.”
With most of the attention going to the play of these freshmen, some might not pay attention to what their coach perceives as their strongest trait — their mentality.
“They’re tenacious; they’re gritty; they play both sides of the ball, and they have that it factor,” Griffin said. “They’re who you want to pick in a pickup game, that’s for sure.”