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Open Mike Column: As Daemen goes Division II, women’s hoops building program with locals

Frontier's Natalie Galus, pictured here, has joined Immaculata's Taylor Heinold in the 2013 recruiting class of Division II Daemen College.

The Sun doesn’t often cover Daemen College athletics, yet I’ve found myself getting very familiar with the school’s women’s basketball coach David Skolen over the past weeks.

In that time, two local schools, about a minute car ride from one another, have announced that their senior four-year varsity standouts in the sport will be signing letter of intents.

Frontier’s Natalie Galus followed last week’s similar commitment by Immaculata’s Taylor Heinold to play basketball next year at Daemen as the college will begin Year Two of a three-year process to become an official NCAA Division II program.

Daemen College is building what it hopes will continue to be a very competitive program, now at the Division II level, and is doing so starting in the Southtowns. Skolen has plucked a pair of players local high school basketball fans have had the pleasure to watch play competitively for their high schools since their freshman seasons.

In doing so, he grabbed two of Western New York’s top seniors and each school’s all-time leading scorers. Heinold just recently broke an eight-year-old career scoring record at Immaculata, while Galus, who came back from a broke hand this week, looks as though she’ll become the school’s first girls 1,000-point scorer.

Both players have versatility, size and athleticism and should fit right into Daemen’s fast-pace style — Galus as a power forward and Heinold, a shooting guard/small forward.

“It’s exciting; I love getting local players,” said Skolen, a Southtowns resident himself, living in Orchard Park. “I’ve seen both of them play a lot over the past couple of years. It’s kind of funny that these two schools are so close to each other and they’re two of the best players to ever have been at their schools.”

Daemen is making the transition from the NAIA to Division II, so its without a conference this year but playing with a smaller affiliation in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association, which offers a postseason to its approximately 80 member schools nationwide.

The next two seasons, Daemen will begin play in Division II’s East Coast Conference, but will not yet be eligible for the postseason. Daemen anticipates becoming a full member of NCAA Division II and the ECC in the 2015-16 academic year.

This year, playing mostly on the road, Daemen has posted an 11th straight 20-win season and holds the top spot in USCAA heading to the postseason. Skolen and his colleagues at the school are excited and well they should be.

Those who have enjoyed watching the growth of these two premier players should also be excited. They won’t have to go far to continue seeing them play. And if the two continue on identical paths in college, this covering of Daemen athletics may become a trend at The Sun.
Alexis Smith has already broken the D'Youville single-game scoring record and now she'll vie for place on the all-conference team. (Photo courtesy of D'Youville College)

D'Youville's Smith on scoring tear

On the subject of women’s college basketball, Hamburg’s Alexis Smith is lighting up the Division III ranks with her play as a only a freshman for D’Youville.

She’s gone from a player getting acclimated to the college game to one that’s already setting records at her new school. A consistent player from the start of the season — being named to the all-tournament in the team’s season opening games, she has been unstoppable of late, including pouring in a school single-game record 35 points in the Spartans’ 56-53 come-from-behind win over Pitt-Greensburg on Feb. 2.

Two days after the record-setting performance, the team’s starting center piled up another accolade, being named Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference Women’s Basketball Player of the Week. Her 15.5 scoring average is seventh in the conference and 13th nationally among freshmen. Smith has put herself in position to win Conference Newcomer of the Year and make the all-conference team.

First-year head coach Dan Glover credits Smith’s strength and craftiness, despite being somewhat undersized at the position, for her quick ascension. He makes no bones about her potential, saying she could be one of the best players in the program’s history by the time she graduates. “So, it’s easy for me to say, I am excited to continue working with her on improving her game to help take her to the next level,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Glover, an Angola native and Lake Shore High School graduate, credits Smith and sophomores Bridget Andrews (Sacred Heart Academy) and Shannon Dougherty (West Seneca West) for providing the program with so much hope for the future. Already, D’Youville has gone from three wins last year to 7-16 overall and 6-10 in AMCC play.

He sees Smith as a part of the foundation in rebuilding the program. She may also be laying the foundation for a career unmatched by any before her.

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