New season underway for Salem State women’s hoops

Junior guard Brianna Rodriguez (left) and senior forward/center Kia Fernandes (right) are two of Salem State's key returners this season. (COURTESY PHOTO BY DAVID LE)

SALEM — New Salem State women’s basketball coach Bobby Verdun knows there are challenges ahead for his Vikings this winter. With a new coaching staff and a new system in place, it’ll take time for his Vikings find their footing. Once they do, however, Verdun feels they can dive into reaching their goals.

“When I was with (men’s coach) Chris Harvey (as an assistant) last season, I had a pretty significant role,” Verdun, a Marblehead resident, said. “I’ve been a head coach before. The adjustments are just trying to be patient but at the same time creating some urgency. The first thing you have to do is establish a winning culture. That’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a balance of teaching and creating a sense of urgency. Our goal is to come in every day, play hard and learn.

“Our goal right now is by the time we get into the MASCAC league to be a pretty tough team to play,” Verdun continued. “I think that’s a realistic goal.”

Verdun has seen signs of progress through the early stages. The Vikings had solid showings in preseason games. Despite a sour loss in their season opener (84-46 at Rhode Island College last Saturday), the Vikings responded with a string of positive practices this week.

“It’s a team that’s going to be a lot better in 10 games than we are right now,” Verdun said. “I think we’re teaching a lot of things, putting in new systems. We got snowballed a little bit (at RIC). We were in the game and then it got away from us. We have to teach how to win. It starts with solving problems. That’s what basketball is, it’s creating and solving problems.”

This year’s roster has no shortage of local players. Classical graduate Irianis Delgado, a guard/forward, enters her freshman season.

“Irianis is a terrific athlete,” Verdun said. “She’s a freshman and raw but she shows flashes of being very good some day.”

Peabody guard/forward Katie Wallace enters her sophomore year. St. Mary’s alum Gianna Moschella, a guard from Peabody, started Saturday’s game and scored 15 points. Other locals include Beverly’s Natalie Mellinger (sophomore guard) and Salem’s Brianna Rodriguez (junior guard).

Verdun said one of his goals moving forward is to build the program with local talent.

“I’ve coached at schools at the higher levels where we’ve had players from Europe,” Verdun said. “The fact that we’re going to develop our program with locals from Salem, Lynn, Peabody, Beverly, that’s important. That’s the beauty of coaching at a state school, to represent the area we’re from. We’re certainly going to do that by connecting with local coaches. That’s a big part of what we’re about and what I want to do moving forward.”

Rodriguez and Moschella lead a talented junior class.

“(The juniors) are going to bridge the program,” Verdun said. “They’re going to be around the next couple years. We have some very good seniors but they won’t be around next year. We have some juniors and seniors that are an integral part of the team. They’re blending great.”

Other key returners this season include senior forward/center Kia Fernandes, senior guard/forward Tyra Scott and junior guard Courtney Paschal.

“Kia’s really learning how to play the game,” Verdun said. “I think she’s been forced to be one- dimensional the past couple years. She’s not only covering the big kids. We’re a small team. Our tallest player is 6’1 and Kia’s six feet. We’re trying to extend ger game a bit and I’m proud of her.”

Verdun’s goals aren’t limited to the feat’s he’s aiming to reach on the court. Aside from basketball, Verdun has prioritized academics and career opportunities with his players.

“Whether you coach men or women I think the college athletic experience is the most important thing,” Verdun said. “If I have a goal this year besides winning on the court it’s creating exceptional experiences for these ladies. My three seniors, we’re looking at jobs and resumes. They’re all going to graduate. My juniors, we’re looking at internships. Our athletic director, Tracey Hathaway, has advocated for holistic experiences for our student-athletes.”

Salem State (0-1) aims for its first win of the season Wednesday (7) when the Vikings host UMass Boston.

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