Was it a surprise that freshman Brynn Rautiola led the Little East Conference in scoring and 3-pointers? Sure, maybe a little bit. But the former Conant High School star set the bar high for herself. She intended to be an impact player coming in for the Keene State College women’s basketball team. Mission accomplished.
Rautiola led the LEC in scoring (19.6 ppg) and 3-pointers made per game (2.7), was second in minutes played (34.9 mpg) behind sophomore teammate Val Luizzi (35.3), and was also among the leaders in 3-point field goal percentage (fifth), free throw percentage (third) and steals (eighth). She was a seven-time LEC Rookie of the Week.
Her presence was vital during a challenging season for the Owls, who went 11-14 overall and were ousted from the LEC tournament quarterfinals on Tuesday at Eastern Connecticut, 43-38. They played the latter half of the season, mostly due to injuries, with a limited roster of seven after starting the year with 19 players.
“The goal was to be in the starting lineup and make an impact right away,” Rautiola said. “That was my expectation of myself to make an impact anyway I can. And to just have the mindset that it doesn’t matter if I’m a freshman or not, I can come here and make an impact from Day 1.”
That she was the league’s top scorer was not expected. “I just honestly wanted to be a solid point guard,” Rautiola said. “It wasn’t going to matter to me how I impacted the game, I just wanted to help my team to win. I have been consistent with putting up numbers.”
Her scoring came from being aggressive from the get-go. “From Day 1, the coaches have pretty much told me that the team needs me to be confident,” she said. “I remember in a preseason practice they pulled me aside because I was hesitant and not really looking to get my own (points). They told me that this team needs me to be confident and scoring the ball is pretty much what helped.”
That the message was received was evident in early-season wins over Colby-Sawyer College and VTSU-Johnson in which Rautiola scored 27 and 24 points, respectively.
Coach Keith Boucher had an inkling Rautiola would be an effective player even before she stepped on the floor for KSC. He’d seen her since she was a freshman at Conant, where she scored over 1,000 points and led the Orioles to four Division III state championship appearances and two state titles. As a senior she was the D-III Player of the Year.
Boucher could tell even when she was a high school freshman that Rautiola could compete. “It was very obvious,” he said. “She had that competitive spirit. She was pretty skilled at that time.”
Boucher was able to follow her closely through high school. Not only by watching her high school games, but also when she attended KSC’s summer hoop camp. There he saw the full player revealed when she would come in every morning to work on her shooting with her Conant coach Brian Troy, a Keene native and Boucher family friend, who coached with Boucher for a year at KSC
“Every kid says they want to get better,” said Boucher, now in his 34th season as head coach. “But ‘want’ is only the beginning. The real measure of whether you’re going to get better or not is if you’re willing to put in the time and effort. Brynn does. She’s a gym rat. She has the desire to get better.”
Although her college choices came down to Keene and Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., the pick was pretty easy. Keene had three advantages Wheaton didn’t have. It was close to her home in Rindge so her family could easily come see her play. She really liked the campus, and KSC had the major she wanted to pursue — exercise science – which Wheaton did not have.
Rautiola’s transition from high school to the college game was relatively seamless. She did say that the pace was certainly much faster and that was a challenge. “That was a big adjustment. In high school you can kind of get away with a lot of things. In college everyone can play. You’ve got to be prepared and have a counter for everything.”
Boucher feels there are several things that Rautiola can do to be an even stronger player next season. One is to put on weight to add to her strength and the other is to be a more vocal leader. “”She’s about as big around as a No. 2 pencil,” the coach said. “She’s got an athletic basketball body. I was joking with her the other day, ‘you’ve got to put on 10 pounds between now and next year.’”
Rautiola agrees she needs to get stronger because she did feel herself getting worn down late in the season. But she doesn’t want to put on any extra weight because she believes it will affect her speed and quickness. Boucher doesn’t think so. “For the women, it’s a much more physical game at the collegiate level,” he said. “I think that will help in the long run because she’s a marked player right now. She’s our starting point guard and every team is trying to take her out mentally and physically.”
In a recent game with UMass-Dartmouth, the No. 20 team in the country (Women’s Basketball Coaches Association poll), they pressed Rautiola full court. “Everybody’s doing it,” Boucher said. “They match up full court and make it difficult for her to catch the ball. Then when she catches, she has to bring the ball up the floor and try to get us into our offense.”
As for being more vocal on the floor, Rautiola said, “Sometimes I was a little timid coming in as a freshman trying to step up as a leader. I definitely think in the upcoming years I can develop into more of a vocal leader. I know that’s what my team needs from me. That’s definitely an area I will improve on.”
She also mentioned she’d like to have more creative finishing options. “I want to have a counter for everything, whatever defense they throw at me,” she said. “I want to have a counter for everything they do.”
One more thing Boucher would like to see his point guard do is go to her right more often. “She’s one of the most left-handed right-handed players I know,” he said. “She’s great going to her left and she’s right handed. We’d like to see her go to her right a little bit more. She doesn’t use that side of the floor as much as she should in a game.”
Rautiola eventually popped up on the LEC’s radar as the season unfolded and her name was at the top of the scoring leaders. “Some teams they face guard, they do a box and one,” she said. “I’m just trying to find ways to make an impact. It didn’t have to do with scoring. Whether that’s making a play on defense, creating an opportunity for my teammates to get open. I think that was really big. I think just not getting frustrated with what the defense threw at me. I think just staying level headed. Trying to just be aggressive and doing what I can.”
Being a scoring point guard put Keene into a Catch 22 situation at times because, as Boucher noted, Rautiola would figure she had to force the issue on offense. “I think as she grows that will become less and less,” he said. “Plus when we have more options. We have another guard (Luizzi) who is having an outstanding season. They play well together.”
Keene certainly had one of the conference’s best backcourts with Rautiola and Luizzi, who averaged 13.0 ppg (8th in LEC) and was also among the conference leaders in assists, and 3-point and foul shooting. Rautiola as a point guard is a dual threat. She can bury the 3-pointer and also slash to the basket where, if you foul her, she is money from the line (127-148, 86 percent).
The biggest challenge for Rautiola and, indeed, for Keene, was playing a good portion of its season with a small roster. Several players left right at the beginning of the season because it wasn’t for them, and then there have been a series of injuries, including four season-ending surgeries. “We’ve had every injury you could imagine,” said coach Boucher. “We should have had 15 healthy bodies, but now we have seven.”
Which is why when you look at the LEC leaders in minutes played you see Luizzi and Rautiola perched at the top of the list. It is something Rautiola has embraced. “I think I was ready for it. I knew coming into the season that they needed a point guard,” she said. “I knew most likely that I was going to be getting heavy minutes. That’s what I wanted.”
But it hasn’t been easy. “Some days we’d come into practice with only six girls. That alone is tough,” Rautiola said. “But it’s just a next man up mentality. We kind of just pick each other up. We’re mentally tough enough to get through it. We stayed resilient all year long. No matter how many numbers we had, it never weighed us down. We had to be mentally tough.”
“It’s out of necessity,” Boucher said. “It’s not that we want that. Their resilience and perseverance has been tremendous through the whole thing.”
When Boucher looks at Rautiola because of all the minutes she played, he sees her as a sophomore not a freshman. When she comes in next year, “I’ll look at her as a junior with all the minutes she’s played,” he said. “That will put some more pressure on her. She’ll handle it. I think she thrives on it.”
When Boucher does take Rautiola out for the rare blow here and there because she needs it, he knows she doesn’t want to come off the floor. “I love that,” he said. “All players aren’t like that.”