Experience, effort should serve girls teams well

Ireland Smith returns to lead the Washington basketball team. TIMES FILE PHOTO

There are high hopes this year, and for good reason.

The Northeast Philadelphia schools will almost all be better this year than they were a season ago. Many teams were inexperienced a season ago, and this year they’re loaded with seniors who have talent.

Experience and effort will be the keys for all of the teams this year, and that bodes well for our girls.

And the Catholic League will look a little different this year, with Archbishop Ryan playing in the Red Division and Little Flower and St. Hubert competing in the Blue Division. Teams will play their divisional rivals twice instead of playing every team in the PCL once.

Here is a look at the local schools:

Catholic Academies League

Nazareth Academy 

Last year marked the return of Mary Kate Magagna to Nazareth. The Pandas’ former star basketball player took over as head coach, and promptly delivered a 12-10 season record, which was a major turnaround after the previous season’s 6-13 campaign. And that upward trend should continue as the team matures.

“This year, our girls know what to expect from us as a staff and come each day ready to learn and help each other get better,” said Magagna.

The Pandas will rely on senior point guard Brooke Kane for her scoring ability and team leadership. Katie Harmon earned time in the starting lineup last year as a freshman, and will take on a bigger role this year. The Pandas will also have guards Maria D’Aulerio, and Hanna Rhoades to help run the offense. Forwards Timmoney Lamplough and Maddy Beretzki solidity the Pandas’ lineup.

While the Pandas have a tough schedule to start the season, they will take things game-by-game and make adjustments along the way.

“We are focusing on the little things and having consistency both on offense and defense,” said Magagna. “When we do, good things can and will happen.”

Catholic League

Archbishop Ryan 

If there’s one thing you can count on each winter, it’s that the Ragdolls will be in the thick of things in the Catholic League. The Ragdolls finished last season at 12-12, a record that many teams would take in a heartbeat. But for the Ragdolls, it was their lowest win total since 2014.

The Ragdolls’ season came to an earlier end than usual last year, when they had the misfortune of facing powerhouse Neumann-Goretti, a team that would advance to the state quarterfinals.

The Ragdolls were a young team last year, and that will be the case again this year. The team will also be without last season’s top two scorers, who both graduated.

Despite those hardships, it’s never a good idea to count the Ragdolls out. Tori Nigro was third on the team in scoring last year – as a freshman. Nigro, who averaged 10 points per game and earned 2nd Team All-Catholic honors, will have the opportunity to put even more points on the board this season. Sophomore Gianna Grassifulli also saw playing time as a freshman, and finished fifth in scoring.

Coach Mike McCusker plans to take advantage of his team’s ability to get up and down the court in games this year. “We are in the top division in the Catholic League so we need to go out and do the little things right to compete,” said McCusker.

The team returns two seniors, Gabi Deluisi and Cait Geiger, alongside junior Luca Verello. The Ragdolls’ impressive sophomore class also includes Sierra Didonato, Maddie Camillo, Kate Brace and Mackenzie Ree. Freshmen Mia Stock and Maria Tierney will also get a chance to show what they can do. This season looks to be an exciting one as the younger Ragdolls mature and carve out their roles on the team.

Little Flower

The Sentinels struggled a season ago, but that’s more about their schedule than their ability. This year, they could be better because they are loaded with experience and have a better schedule.

Leading the way will be five seniors: Kelly Bauer, Maura Budd, Emmerson McCabe, Natalie O’Neill and Amylynn Owen, five players who have been with the team for four seasons.

They’ll also have help. Junior Mikyla “Brooklyn” Grant, and freshmen Gabrielle Dever and Nakira Thorpe are three players who will also see time. They will look to develop to help the team this year and beyond.

Little Flower has high hopes for the season, but improvement, not wins, is how coach Maureen Buchter will judge the success.

“Our strengths will come from our returning seniors,” Buchter said. “This season is a journey. The coaching staff continues to encourage the players to do the little things right, take care of the ball, push to keep improving and let the five players on the floor play as one.”

St. Hubert

Last season was an anomaly for the Bambies, who finished 4-19. Prior to that, the team hadn’t finished with fewer than seven wins in more than a decade. That kind of consistency is all the more impressive for a team playing in the Catholic League. That feat just became easier, with the league realignment that starts this season.

The Bambies of last season were, for the most part, young and inexperienced. And that included their coach. Dave Schafer, St. Hubert’s longtime softball coach, took over the reins of the girls basketball team last season. With the growing pains behind them, the Bambies are now aiming for a winning record and a playoff berth.

“If we stay healthy and our chemistry comes together, we should have a successful season,” said Schafer. “Our attitude and work ethic are outstanding.”

Cassidy Ruk and MacKenzie Pugh are the team’s two senior returners, and will share time at center. The Bambies have a solid core of experienced juniors this year, including forwards Sarah Spaeth and Payton Pugh and guards Emma McNamee and Alexa May. Charlotte Pugh is poised for a breakout season after seeing playing time last year as a freshman. This year, the Bambies will be introducing freshmen Mackenzie McLaughlin, Mia Tobin and Kate Patterson to the varsity game.

The Bambies will look to use their speed and athleticism to their advantage as the team matures and become more familiar with one another.

Public League

Abraham Lincoln 

The Railsplitters had their best season in quite awhile last year, finishing 11-9 and coming close to a playoff victory. The young Railsplitters fell 52-48 to Edison in that game, but gained invaluable playoff experience. This year looks to be even more successful for Lincoln.

“This season could be one of the very best we have had in years,” said head coach Adam Zummo. “Since we are a young team for the most part, I see us being able to succeed for years to come.”

Jaidah Peterson-Miller had a breakout season as a junior, leading the team in scoring with more than 200 points. In her senior year, Peterson-Miller will have even more of an opportunity to put up big numbers, thanks to a talented and athletic surrounding cast. The Railsplitters also return their second-highest scorer from last year, Edrina Fields, who reached that feat as a freshman.

The team’s veteran players include seniors Ebona McRavion and Ashanti Wright, and juniors Aracely Acevedo, Briana Henderson and Delylah Serrano. Anyia Holmes and Hailey Crowe will see more time on the court as sophomores, and freshman Jhanna Alvarez-Alonzo will get a chance to show what she can do.

Frankford

The Pioneers won just three games a season ago. They surpassed that win total in the first four games of this year under new coach Jonathan Michels. The young team might be a year away from contending, but they’re going to do what they can to speed up the process.

The team will rely on guards Kaysia Norris-Higgins, Brianna Jones, Brenda Borbar and Shaniya Meyers. All of them will see valuable minutes in the backcourt.

The Pioneers also have talented forwards, including Nasjah Pinckney, Amber Maddox, Oshana Fowler, Tamiesha Rhem and Aanayah Hopkins.

Michels knows greatness isn’t a quick process, but he’s happy with what he’s seen thus far.

“I’m happy with everything, ever since we started open gym, we’ve been doing great,” Michels said. “The girls are a pleasure to be around, they’re doing everything they can. We’ll be better than most people expect. They’ve worked their way into becoming a good team.”

Franklin Towne  Charter

If there’s one thing that the Warriors don’t do well, it’s have a down season. Last year, the Warriors were lacking depth in the lineup and were focusing on defense to keep games close. The result? An 11-6 record, which was even better than the previous season’s 10-9 campaign.

And this year should even better, as the Warriors’ core remains intact. You won’t find a team with more experience, as the Warriors have at least three seniors in the starting lineup.

“Our team is led by three seniors who have played together over the past four years,” said head coach Brianna O’Donnell. “Their leadership will focus on hard work and playing together as a team.”

Point guard Rian Coleman is a four-year starter who will lead the team in her senior year, alongside shooting guard Jaydee Ocasio. Laila Hawkins will start at center, and Delaney Maier will handle the power forward position.

George Washington 

The Eagles have been on an upswing for the past few years, and they don’t expect that to change.

Last season, the Eagles finished 14-3, won the National Division, and had a first-round win, before falling to Palumbo in the second round.

The Eagles return several juniors and seniors, but overall are young and inexperienced. The loss of Isabella Vazquez, who scored 1,000 points, will certainly be felt.

Head coach Chris Reid will be counting on seniors Ireland Smith and center Mariam Anah to take the reins and lead the team. Smith, who plays point guard, is closing in on 1,000 points herself, a feat she should achieve by midseason.

“These two captains (Smith and Anah) must show the younger players how to play in the physical and tough Public League,” said Reid. “We are very young and inexperienced… but the other girls will need to take the load off of Ireland.”

The Eagles return junior guards Daya Staley and Jessica Soriano, who will see more playing time this year. Freshman Nicole Henriquez will also have a chance to show what she can do at forward.

Northeast

The Vikings had a bit of a setback last year after making great strides over the previous few years. Their 2-9 record was disappointing, but not entirely unexpected, as the Vikings lost some seniors to graduation.

But the good news is that the Vikings have several promising returning players who gained valuable experience last year.

Senior Sydonia Turner and junior Kiarra Gular-Brown will lead the way for head coach Philip Monastra.

Monastra will be looking for more involvement from junior guard Tatyanna McKoy and sophomore guard Arianna Zaki this year. If they can get the ball into the hands of Turner and Gular-Brown, the Vikings will be sitting pretty.

“(We are a) younger team and still developing,” said Monastra. “We should be above .500 for the season and hopefully back in the playoffs.”

Tacony Charter

The Lions enjoyed a strong season last year, going 15-6 under coach Paul Rieser. They have some great players back to lead the way this year.

Amir Cheeks, who was first-team All-Public a season ago, returns for her final year. She’ll have good guards to work with in Yasmine Gonzalez, Aleemat Remi-Aofey and Sierra McClure.

Tacony Charter has everything it needs to make a run, including speed, tenacity on defense and a great attitude.

“(We have a) young group of players,” Rieser said. “Four freshmen will see significant playing time. We hope to make the playoffs and build for the future.”