Countdown to 2015–16: Future coach and current star, Elizabeth Belanger does it all for New Hampshire

Photo courtesy of UNH Athletics

Here are a couple truths, when it comes to sport. Injuries happen, and when such a setback occurs, the strength of a program is often revealed in the manner of its response.

Last fall, Corinne Coia, an all-conference post for New Hampshire, suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear that would sideline her for the entire 2014–15 season. That meant Wildcats coach Maureen Magarity had some lineup-tinkering to do.

As Magarity sifted through her roster, wondering who could help fill that void in the low post, she settled upon Elizabeth Belanger, then a 5–10 junior. Magarity was a bit nervous as she told Belanger, one of the best players in the America East Conference, We might need to throw you into the post a bit this season. But she needn’t have worried.

With a straight face, Belanger told Magarity, Whatever you need me to do.

“She was strictly a perimeter player for her first two years, since her size makes her such a tough matchup, but once we threw her in the post, she picked things up so quickly,” says Magarity. “She can use her quickness create mismatches, draw fouls, and get to the free throw line.”

For Belanger, it factored perfectly into her versatility, which she considers her greatest strength as a player. “I’ve been asked to play a lot of different positions based on injuries, and depending upon who we’re playing on a given night, I have the ability to play as a two- or three-guard, as well as play the four and handle posts,” she says.

Belanger learned UNH’s offense from both angles, wing and post, and it helped her realize how best to exploit matchups. There was an adjustment period to her new designations — “I was used to shooting over guards on the perimeter” — so in the low post, working against bigger players, she got creative.

“That’s only helped me as a player,” says Belanger. “Now, I’m continuing to work on the inside, so I switch during workouts between guards and posts. It’s a good mix.”

Last season, Belanger was named to the America East Conference first team after averaging 15.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.1 assists. She upped nearly all those numbers in conference play. UNH finished 17–12, including 9–7 in conference play, earning a four seed before falling by 16 points to Hartford in the America East tournament quarterfinals. Belanger posted a double-double in that game.

There was a trust factor between Belanger and Magarity’s staff that gave her confidence in the positional switch. One of UNH’s assistant coaches is Kelsey Hogan, a teammate of Belanger’s for two seasons at UNH and one of her best friends. “That really helps me,” says Belanger. “Kelsey kind of took me under her wing when I got to UNH. Now, I can explain anything to her.”

An all-conference player at Marist, Magarity became the youngest head coach in college basketball — men’s or women’s — when she took New Hampshire’s helm in 2010. “Coach Mags is younger than most coaches, and that really helps, too,” says Belanger. “She understands us better than most other, older coaches — she knows what it’s like to be a college athlete, having been one herself, recently.”

Magarity remembers those first days of recruiting on the job five years ago, the difficulty she faced in convincing top New England talent to participate in her rebuilding project. “We were trying to change the perception here, and when we started recruiting Elizabeth, we thought it might be a long shot to get her,” says Magarity. “She played for the Crusaders, the top AAU program in New England, and you could tell that she was going to be an even better player in college.”

Belanger listened to Magarity’s pitch, and fell in love with the idea of helping build a team that could play in big games. The motivation distilled into a crisp mantra: I want to be a part of that.

“UNH had such a great balance between school and basketball, and I loved the campus,” says Belanger. “The coaching staff has been phenomenal, and so many of my best friends have been teammates.”

Belanger (Courtesy of Greg Greene)

Magarity hails Belanger’s commitment as a watershed: the first elite local recruit who signed on to this project.

“She believed in what we wanted to do here,” says Magarity, “and she saw the bigger picture. She knew she’d be able to play right away, because we were rebuilding, but she also saw the opportunities at UNH — great location, tremendous academics, close to home. We were thrilled.”

It’s kept growing, year by year. “After each season, you keep thinking, ‘Wow, how will she top that?’,” says Magarity. “And then, she does. It’s not just stats, but the way she pushes herself. She’s a gym rat, and she’s the hardest-working kid I’ve coached. She will simply do whatever it takes to win. I’ve been lucky to coach her.”

Magarity remembers watching Belanger throughout those first couple years at UNH, the way she put her head down and worked, preparing for the time when she’d be called upon to take over.

“You don’t often see that with younger players,” says Magarity. “Kids want things right away, and they feel entitled to them. Elizabeth knew that she had that kind of opportunity here, but she didn’t walk in expecting to be handed playing time. She earned the respect of her teammates and coaches with her work ethic.

“She’s done great things in the league, statistically, and she’s gotten honors and awards, but the one thing she’s determined with this season, and it’s reflected in everything she’s doing, is she wants everyone to buy in to how she envisions her senior year going.”

Magarity hails Belanger’s leadership. The way the quiet kid has continued to step out of her comfort zone and grow, year by year. Her teammates voted her a co-captain, with Coia, for the upcoming campaign. “She deserves that,” says Magarity.

It makes sense, when Belanger reveals that she’d like to get into coaching after her playing days are done. When a teammate is struggling, she can expect a knock on her door, early one morning from Belanger. Hey, let’s go to the gym and work this thing out. Belanger is already inquiring about graduate assistant positions around the country, but before all that, there’s this final season to enjoy.

“I think our strength as a team is in how much we’re willing to work,” says Belanger. “That’s been evident throughout the summer and preseason. Everyone wants to win, and they’re putting that into practice.”

There’s a number of reasons to get excited about UNH’s prospects in what could be a loaded America East field. Coia returns to the frontcourt, and sophomores Aliza Simpson and Carli Pogue have ample experience after starting as freshmen.

Then, that Swiss-Army knife of a senior.

“Bringing Elizabeth back definitely helps,” says Magarity. “She does it all.”

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops