The Panthers return a lot from a team that posted an eight-year best 13-9 record last winter, as head coach Jenna Olem begins her sixth season at the helm.
For the Whitman-Hanson Regional High girls’ basketball team, the pieces to the puzzle are there, now it’s just about connecting them.
“It has a been a four-year process of them all coming together for this year particularly,” said sixth-year head coach Jenna Olem.
The Panthers return all but three players from last winter’s roster that led the program to an eight-year best 13-9 record. Almost all the seniors have been with Olem since at least their sophomore seasons, while the returning three juniors and two sophomores received significant playing time last season. The core showed signs of greatness, displayed by their 7-0 start last season, but stumbled down the stretch, going just 6-9 the rest of the way. Olem said she believes this season’s team is more prone to halt a slide like that.
“I think last year, we did have a younger team, with only two seniors,” Olem said. “The juniors, now seniors were getting their first taste of real playing time as were the sophomores and freshmen. It’s natural to hit some bumps within the mid-January stretch, but I think the girls are experienced enough to stop the bleeding quickly when they face adversity.”
Senior two-year captains and Patriot League All-Stars Kathryn Dunn and Erin Leahy will lead the way once again this winter.
Dunn led the team in nearly every statistical category last season, including points (11.3), assists (1.9) and steals (1.8). Her 5.7 rebounds per game, ranked second. Dunn will be used mostly as a stretch four to open up the court.
“Many of our offensive sets will be designed to get the ball in her hands to lead the offensive attack,” Olem said. “To be honest, I think Kathryn is capable of doing even more for us this year, especially as far as scoring goes. I want her to have that confidence that if she has a chance to score, we want her to score first.”
After being used mainly down low last season, Leahy will slide back into the point guard role, where she was as a sophomore.
“Her ability to see the floor, control the pace of play and handle defensive pressure are crucial,” Olem said. “Erin also presents a problem to opposing defenses because she is so much bigger than most guards. She can shoot the three, post up, and find the open man.”
Sophomore Reese Codero (4.1 ppg last season) will start at the two guard, joining Dunn and Leahy in the starting lineup. Junior Brittany Gacicia and senior Meg Henaghan are the front-runners to round out the starting lineup at small forward and center, respectively. However, Olem said she doesn’t read too much into who takes the court for the opening tip.
“The great strength about this team is that there is no real drop off between the starters and the people coming off the bench,” she said. “Everyone has something to offer. I think the versatility of our roster is balanced that we can fit a lot of people into the starting lineups depending on matchups, so I believe it will change through out the season.”
Olem said that when the 6-foot-2 Henaghan is on the court, she’ll look to her to provide a steady presence down low, due to the team’s lack ofheight elsewhere.
“She can take up space in the paint, block or alter shots and get rebounds,” Olem said. “She will have to use her skillset and her body to be that dominant player on the boards and anchor the defense down low.”
With Henaghan providing the Panthers with just about their only size down low, as opposed to last season when senior captains Halle Julian and Alyssa Nicholson clogged up the paint, Olem said their offensive philosophy will differ.
“We will be more dependent on playing with more guards, instead of traditional post play as we’ve done in the past,” Olem said. “We have so many players who can do a variety of things with the ball. Because they are mostly interchangeable skill-wise I feel confident I can use them in a variety of positions. We will have more of a spread offense look and continue to run.”
However, their aggression on defense, set and embodied by senior Olivia Johnson, will not change.
“[Olivia] brings that unbelievable sense of competition to everyone and is an absolute game-changer on the defensive end,” Olem said. “I think defense obviously sets the tone and shows the toughness of the team and will be something that we stress every day in practice. We will press and mix up our defenses depending on matchups.”
Olem noted she was pleasantly surprised to see the improvement of both junior Hannah Damon and sophomore Rylie Harlow, while she’s excited to see what junior Olivia Martin will bring to the offense this season.
The Panthers begin their campaign Tuesday, Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. on the road against Patriot League foe Quincy.
“There is no considerable drop off from one player to the next and many of the players have interchangeable skills, which is nice to have,” Olem said. “I think that on any given night, a different player will have an opportunity to help the team win.”