FAIRFIELD -- With no games on the schedule and no worries about playing time, it's easy for a team to develop good chemistry in the off-season.
When Ed Swanson heard favorable reports about the players on his Sacred Heart women's basketball team over the summer, the head coach was happy, but didn't put much stock in them.
"I kept hearing over the summer and in the preseason that the chemistry was good, but you haven't played any games yet," Swanson said. "You hear `yeah chemistry is good, or we are working hard.' Yeah, well so is every other team in the country."
The only difference for the Pioneers is they have actually carried a feel-good summer over to the regular season, where SHU is off to its best start in program history at 9-1. The Pioneers, who have won five straight, return to action Sunday at Albany.
"I really do see that this team enjoys playing with each other," said Swanson, who has led SHU to two Northeast Conference championships and two NCAA tournaments since 2006.
"They are very coachable -- you tell them to do one thing, not that we haven't had bumps in the road, but they are very coachable. I think you add all those things together and playing well, (it's why we've been successful)."
SHU's only loss was 63-54 at St. Joseph's Nov. 26. In their nine wins, the Pioneers have beaten every opponent by double digits except rival Quinnipiac, which fell 74-65 on its home floor.
The Bobcats and Cal Poly are the only teams to score more than 60 points against SHU, which is holding opponents to conference-low 51.4 points per game.
"I think a big key has been our defense," said senior forward Callan Taylor, who has already been named the conference player of the week four times. "It's just been a really big focus this year. Also our chemistry has been the best since I've been here. The girls get along on and off the court -- it really helps."
It certainly helps the Pioneers have maybe the best player in the conference on its roster in Taylor, who ranks third in the NEC in scoring (17.3 ppg) and second in rebounds (9.9 rpg). She also leads all active NCAA Division I players with 42 career double-doubles.
"I did know we had one of the better players in the Northeast Conference that we can build around," Swanson said.
However, unlike in previous years when the Pioneers ran almost everything exclusive through former star guard Alisa Apo, this season Swanson and his staff have tried to incorporate more players into the mix.
"When the coaching staff got back together we knew we had to balance it out," Swanson said. "We couldn't run every set for Callan and we are finding out the more we go away from her, the more she's into the action."
Sophomore point guard Ericka Norman, who led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, has been another frequent contributor, posting her first career double-double with 11 assists and 10 steals against Quinnipiac.
When Apo went down with a second-ending knee injury last season, Norman took the reins at the point and has not missed a beat.
"After the (Quinnipiac) game, my assistant Lauren (Gregory-Hall) was like `we have to get her to be more aggressive,'" Swanson said. "We looked at the stat sheets after and I was like `you better just shut up (laughs).' But Lauren is right, too -- there is a lot more in (Ericka) that she can do."
The same can be said of the other Pioneers, including impact freshman Gabrielle Washington (12.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg), who has joined the starting guard lineup along with junior Kiley Evans, a former NEC all-rookie selection, and Norman. Senior Alexis Campbell, who was cleared five games ago after suffering a knee injury in April, and freshman point guard Katie Shepard have made the position even deeper.
"Everyone is playing their role very well and everyone is stepping up this year," Norman said.
The talent upfront includes 6-2 sophomore center Enjoli Bland, who is recovered from a shoulder injury that plagued her last season, along with 5-11 sophomore Blair Koniszewski (7.6 ppg) and junior Morgan Merriman (7.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg). The trio's play has helped offset the loss of 6-foot small forward Hannah Kimmel, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in September.
"Our bench is a lot deeper than it's been and that helps everyone on the court," Taylor said.
After being knocked out of the conference tournament in the quarterfinals by Central Connecticut State the past two years, the Pioneers are keeping their fingers crossed the improvements will pay off in March. Already, this year's squad is reminding Swanson of one of his previous championship teams.
"There's been a little bit of an edge to this team like our '06 team -- I never had to wake them up," Swanson said. "This team might not be as good as the '06 team, but they have that ticker that gets moving at a high rate of speed come game time."
Contact William S. Paxton at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on twitter at wspaxton