Nazareth fall sports ready to roll

The Nazareth Academy cheerleading team is hoping for another successful showing this year. CONTRIBUTED

Normally, we are about a month into our seasons by this point.

But it’s 2020, and nothing is normal.

This year, most athletes are waiting for the word on when they’re going to start.

Athletes in the Public League and the Catholic League are on the sidelines. Both leagues decided to postpone the fall season due to coronavirus. The hope is to play the fall season later in the school year, but nothing is decided just yet.

The Catholic and Public leagues are on the sidelines, but there will be sports in Northeast Philadelphia this year. Nazareth Academy High School, which competes in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies, is a full go.

The Pandas will compete in five sports this year: cheerleading, cross country, soccer, tennis and volleyball, and each program has high hopes for its season.

The seasons are starting late because of COVID-19, and preseason games are wiped out because most of their opponents aren’t fielding teams yet, but the Pandas will look to be the best in their league, and in all of the sports, they have a fighting chance.

Here is a look at the Pandas’ prospects this fall.

CHEERLEADING

Last year, the Pandas had plenty to cheer about. Nazareth took no worse than second place in every local competition, earned fifth place in the United Cheer Association’s Regional competition and earned a nationals qualification.

This year, coach Emily Tschopp hopes for the same kind of success. And she’ll have the experience to make that happen.

Leading the team will be Marykate Wheeler, a backspot; Alyssa McKeever, a side and main base; Riley Knight, a main base; Patricia McGrath, a flyer; and Catherine Sablich, a main base.

Competitions will look a little different, at least at the start of the year, with some schools not fielding teams because of the pandemic, but no matter who turns out, the Pandas should be among the best around.

“Our strengths as a team include our jump high and synchronization, they are very precise with every skill they perform and they always bring the happy energy,” Tschopp said. “My outlook coaching this team and working with Nazareth is that their happiness is always first. Making sure they are enjoying themselves and learning something new is the No. 1 priority, especially for me.”

CROSS COUNTRY

It’s hard to have a better season than the Pandas did in 2019, when they went 7-0 in league play, and then followed it up by taking second in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies championship meet and second in the PIAA District One race.

This year will be a tough one for the Pandas because the league is slated to be improved, but Nazareth has its fair share of top runners.

The team will follow the senior leadership of Julia Quigley, Lianna Rieser and Danielle Juliano. Other major contributions are expected from juniors Ella Verello and Maddie Scott.

With a lot of experience, the Pandas should have a shot at repeating perfection.

“We only lost one runner from last year’s top seven,” said Nazareth coach Andrew Lofton Sr. “(We should be) in contention to win the AACA league championship.”

SOCCER

The Pandas enjoyed a fine season last year, winning 15 games, and the hope is to do even better this year. It should be possible with a talented team coming back to the mix.

This year, Dan Bradley’s team will be led by Maddie Maguire, Ali Loper, Maddie Blackshire and Kayla Kinniry.

To improve upon last year’s 15-win season will be a challenge, but Bradley is optimistic about what this team can do.

“Our greatest strength is our team-first mentality,” Bradley said. “We have speed, toughness and high soccer IQ, but they realize none of that matters if we don’t play as one.

“Last year’s seniors set the bar high with key wins, scoring 51 goals and only allowing 14. This year’s team is up for the challenge to raise the bar higher and they understand it starts with team first.”

TENNIS

The AACA is tough in all sports, but tennis might be the most challenging, and while the Pandas don’t always produce winning seasons, they usually have a talented roster. This year, the team should be as strong as ever.

According to coach Laura Wozniak, singles players Paige Montijo, Malia Cipolloni and Alyssa Pearce did an incredible job keeping the scores close with frequent deuces, while doubles teams Meg Smith and Julia McAtee and Katharine Hibbs and Natalie Pellegrino also proved to be tough competition for the opponents.

Wozniak is confident this year could be a special one for the Pandas.

“Nazareth has always faced stiff competition in tennis,” Wozniak said. “Our record doesn’t accurately reflect the closeness of each player’s individual matches.

“The 2020 season will be a challenge with a later start date, changing weather and shorter days will definitely impact our matches. It’s a different environment this year, but we’ll make the adjustments and I’m certain it will be a successful and fun tennis season.”

VOLLEYBALL

Rob Reifsteck takes over a program that finished 2-17 a season ago. But this year, there is plenty of optimism with a team that has come out ready to get better every day. And the Pandas also have plenty of players who can lead a turnaround.

The key players on this year’s squad include Gianna DiBello, an outside hitter; Libby Corbett, a setter; Cristina Rodriquez, a setter; Taylor Beachmin, a middle hitter; and Emma Cusano, also a middle hitter.

A better year is expected, and Reifsteck is happy with the team he will bring to each game.

“The willingness to get better every day is the greatest strength,” Reifsteck said. “It’s a group that is committed and look forward to improving.

“(We hope to) compete in the Catholic Academy league and improve from last year.”