Friday, March 9, 2012

Trio of Dutchwomen seniors establish a successful foundation

Flying Dutchwomen seniors Candice Bellocchio, Marie Malone and Nicole Capurso pose with head coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey and senior student manager Elizabeth Smith after Senior Day festivities Feb. 26. Photo courtesy Hofstra Athletics.

As the first-year head coach of the Flying Dutchwomen and a high school senior, respectively, back in the fall of 2006, Krista Kilburn-Steveskey and Candice Bellocchio both knew where they wanted to lead the Hofstra women’s basketball program—even if they didn’t know their way around campus yet.

“She was trying to take me on a tour but she didn’t know where anything was,” Bellocchio said this week. “So the two of us are standing there with a map trying to figure things out.”

Such an image was symbolic of the rebuilding program Kilburn-Steveskey and Bellocchio were about to embark upon. Five-and-a-half years later, the ultimate goal—Hofstra’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament—is within reach as the fourth-seeded Dutchwomen prepare to begin CAA Tournament play this afternoon against fifth-seeded UNC Wilmington.

This weekend represents the last chance for Bellocchio and fellow seniors Nicole Capurso and Marie Malone to be a part of that history-making team, but even if the Dutchwomen fall short, the trio will take—pardon the pun—pride in laying the foundation for the most successful era in program history.

The Dutchwomen (19-10) have won at least 19 games for the third straight season, which equals the amount of times the program reached the 19-win mark in Hofstra’s first 27 seasons at the Division I level. And the Dutchwomen are primed for a long stay at or near the top of the CAA thanks to an incoming recruiting class that is ranked as one of the best among mid-majors.

It’s a long way from where the Dutchwomen were during Bellocchio’s freshman season in 2007-08, when Hofstra endured a 5-25 season. Even in the midst of that trying campaign, though, Bellocchio knew something good was brewing.

“The only thing she could have promised was we were going to build the program,” said Bellocchio, who redshirted her sophomore year due to injury. “And it wasn’t going to be easy, but it would be worth it.”

Capurso and Malone recognized the same thing from afar. Capurso, a year younger than her fellow seniors, committed to Hofstra at the end of her junior year of high school and was impressed by the Dutchwomen’s effort and focus in 2007-08, when they lost eight games by seven point or less.

“The year I’m coming to watch, they’re 5-25 and it wasn’t much different, mentality-wise,” Capurso said. “We always played hard, we were always a team that was fighting for their life. I think we still have that. Getting talented kids in every year helps, running an offense like this helps, but I think the foundation was always there. We were always tough and we weren’t going to back down.”

Malone was heavily recruited by Hofstra but initially went to West Virginia. When she decided to transfer after her freshman year, she wasted no time deciding to head to the school she wanted to attend in the first place.

“Honestly, Hofstra was my first choice from the beginning,” Malone said. “I knew that whether the team was struggling or not, [Kilburn-Steveskey] was still coaching them as hard as she could and that they weren’t giving up. Things weren’t falling into their hands that year but I knew that they were fighting every single game. Most teams will just lay down and be like whatever, we’re not going well. But not here.”

The Dutchwomen’s winning percentage and CAA Tournament seeding has improved in each of the last four seasons, thanks in large part to the performance of the seniors on and off the court. Bellocchio has played in a program-record 131 games, ranks second-all-time in assists and will reach the top 20 in points with her first basket today.

She also made the CAA’s all-academic team in her final four seasons and won the CAA’s Dean Ehlers Leadership Award at this week’s CAA banquet, where a video in which teammates, coaches and school administrators poignantly paid her homage was aired.

Capurso ranks in the school’s all-time top 10 in 3-pointers, points and games played and earned CAA all-academic honors in all four seasons, And while Malone has been hobbled by injuries—she suffered the second torn ACL of her career last year after averaging 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds over four games but couldn’t redshirt because she’d already used up that fifth year in transferring—she is averaging 5.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, which are career highs over a full season.

“Definitely the people [she thinks of] when you think of Hofstra basketball,” Kilburn-Steveskey said. “For me, personally, the ones that have just set the tone have been these three.”

While the Dutchwomen are focused on this weekend, the specter of better days ahead have the three seniors feeling equal parts wistful they won’t be around to see the continued improvement and gratified by their part in getting the program to this point.

“I’d try to get a sixth year, but I don’t think they’ll allow it,” Bellocchio said with a laugh. “It’s great to know that you came through this program, made a difference and made it better for the people behind you now. Hopefully they can take that foundation and grow it even more.”

“I think it’s going to be, from my first year being here, a whole lot different than what [next year’s freshman are] going to experience when they’re here,” Malone said. “It’s going to be much better. We’re held so much higher in the conference now I think it’s going to be really, really good.”

“My freshman year was a different point [than] where this program is now and I like to think that our senior class really helped move [it to] that point,” Capurso said. “In a family, you always talk about giving a better life to the people behind you. And that’s what I feel like we did here. That’s cool to say. Hopefully we get to the tournament this time, but whatever happens from here, it’s like we did help change the program and hopefully the mentality and the face of the program. It can only go up from there.”

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