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Lancers have made an early-season statement

It is not just Loyalsock graduating four starters last June that had many wondering if it would take a big step backward a season after capturing the District 4 Class AAA championship. It was that all those players started for at least three years. It was that all five earned league all-star honors. It was that only two returning players received significant varsity minutes.

The returning Lancers, however, never really thought about what was lost. They focused on what remained. Go ahead and doubt them if one wants, but the expectations remain the same. Loyalsock has reached three straight state tournaments and this team has no intention of letting the program slip.

It is early, but Loyalsock has made a nice early-season statement, going 3-0 last week against three 2019 playoff qualifiers. The Lancers won all three games by double digits and capped their week with an impressive 46-30 victory against previously undefeated Hughesville.

“I don’t think there was ever a doubt in our minds that we were going to be down this year at all because we knew we had players coming up and we knew that we had experience,” Loyalsock center Allyia Kennedy said after scoring 11 points and grabbing 9 rebounds against Hughesville. “It’s really good to have that team balance there.”

Last week was step one along this 2020 journey. Big steps have been taken the past three seasons with each Lancer team outperforming the previous one. Loyalsock reached the state tournament’s second round the past two seasons and was a few missed shots from advancing to the quarterfinals last March, dropping a heartbreaker against Imhotep. And it was after that game in which this latest journey really started.

The returning players knew the challenge that awaited them. Soon after they started working and have not slowed down since. Practices are as competitive as games and Lancers pushing Lancers every day is exactly what the coaching staff likes seeing. There is a long way to go, but a strong foundation is being built.

“It was a hungry offseason. From the day we lost to Imhotep it was girls realizing it’s going to be my time. Someone has to do it and we’re very hard on them and it’s kind of the expectation that if you’re going to play you’re going to earn it,” Loyalsock coach Curtis Jacobson said. “If you’re going to play you’re going to show it every single day, not just on game days, but at practice. They do get after it. We came in this year where spots were open. We had no idea going into our scrimmages who was going to start and I told he girls that. It’s a good problem to have. It means we have options.”

Loyalsock defeated Mifflinburg, Shamokin and Hughesville by 41 combined points, but those games featured some peaks and valleys. At the same time, progress has been made each game and Loyalsock delivered its most complete performance against Hughesville. Three players scored in double figures and the defense delivered its best game. Another positive sign was Jacobson being able to switch defenses more as his players start understanding the concepts better.

It helps having two-time HAC-III all-star Summer McNulty back. The junior captain already has competed in 13 playoff games and provides both production and leadership. Fellow junior Cassie Gee also shined last postseason and scored a career-high 21 points in the season opener against Shamokin. Still, even those two have new roles with McNulty moving from forward to point guard and Gee being targeted more by opposing defenses.

“We’re a work in progress and we’re going to continue to be that way. We’re still finding out who we are because every single one of them has a different role this year,” Jacobson said. “Hopefully, we can continue to win more games while we’re still learning. A lot of teams lose games when they learn and we’re winning games as we learn which is a good start.”

Many names have changed but the goals have not. Loyalsock might actually have more depth than a year ago and many first-time starters/contributors have only scratched the surface of their potential. The work remains, but this team, like the ones before it, embraces that hard work. Maybe there will be growing pains, but if progress keeps being made, Loyalsock could be right where it wants to be when it grows especially cold outside.

“Some of them are performing well in practice and it’s not showing on game day. We feel like at some point things are going to click for them,” Jacobson said. “It’s a matter of keeping them confident and understanding that the time will come. They want to be perfect right now. We need to be perfect in February and I think, come that time, we’ll have all the pieces we need in place to hopefully make another run.”

A FRESH START: Central Mountain entered the season riding a 48-game losing streak and won one game over the past three seasons. The Wildcats, though, are flipping the script and opened the season with consecutive wins, defeating Philipsburg-Osceola and Milton. More good times could be coming, too, since this team has some talented players last year who helped the team made progress even though the record did show it.

Junior guard Quinlynn McCann is off to a fantastic start and scored an area-best 34 points against P-O before going for 19 points and 12 rebounds against Milton. Avery Baker is averaging nearly 10 points per game and Alyssa Fisher made four steals against Milton. Much work remains but Central Mountain certainly is a program on the rise.

PUTBACKS: Jersey Shore earned its first win Saturday, rallying in the second half and defeating Selinsgrove, 43-32. Aubrey Stetts scored 17 points and Sadie Griswold added 14. The Bulldogs showed improvement in their last two games of the week … Kiersten Mitstifier scored a career-high 19 points, helping North Penn-Liberty earn its first win as it defeated Williamson, 67-33. Latascia Peterson erupted for a career-high 25 points … Three players scored in double figures for South Williamsport as it opened its season with a 77-point performance against St. John Neumann. Claudia Green (15), Julie Anthony (14) and Madi Tolomay (10) all scored in double figures. Neumann bounced back and played much better two nights later against Muncy and freshman Lily Reid scored 16 points … Cathryn Brought, Emma Coolidge and Bailey Monks all scored in double figures and Wellsboro won its first game, defeating Sayre, 48-31 in a rematch of last year’s NTL championship … Ellie Binford scored 12 points, made six steals and grabbed five rebounds as Canton closed its week with a 52-25 win against rival Troy. Molly Ward added a career-high 13 rebounds … Paisley Nudd scored a career-high 14 points for Cowanesque Valley in Saturday’s three-point loss against Prattsburgh Central … Cara Parsell was a point from recording a double-double, producing nine points and 13 rebounds in Galeton’s 41-30 win against Austin. Alli Macensky added 10 points and nine rebounds.

DR. MASSE’S TOP FIVE GIRLS BASKETBALL TEAMS

1. Loyalsock (3-0): A program that has never shied away from playing stiff competition continues its run of challenging early-season games this week with games against Penns Valley, four-time defending district champion Mount Carmel and South Williamsport. Summer McNulty started strong last week, scoring 17 points in all three games. She is playing point guard for the first time, but appears comfortable doing so. McNulty did a nice job attacking the basket and setting up others those first three games and also is developing a stronger perimeter game, giving opponents something else to think about.

2. Hughesville (2-1): The good news for Hughesville is that it gets at least one more chance against Loyalsock when it hosts the Lancers next month. The Spartans had their chances against Loyalsock, but struggled to convert close-range shots so one has the feeling the gap between the two teams is smaller than Saturday’s score appeared. Hughesville continues playing swarming defense and is allowing just 29 points per game. That defense was especially stifling last Monday in a 42-16 win against Jersey Shore.

“A year has made a difference, maturity-wise and with understanding what we’re doing,” Hughesville coach Craig Weaver Sr. said. “Right now the speed and quickness is really helping us and we’re having fun with it and we’re playing that way.”

3. Sullivan County (4-1): Samantha Albright is coming up big in her first year starting, helping Sullivan overcome injuries early this season and stay undefeated in the Mid-Penn. Albright scored a career-high 14 points and produced a double-double in Saturday’s 47-45 win at fellow District 4 Class A title contender Benton. Senior forward Jessica King continues being a rock of consistency and delivered her second triple-double this season in that game. The first time King did with it points, rebounds and steals. Against Benton, the two-time all-stater added blocks to her repertoire. Kassidy Beinlich is another emerging weapon and scored a career-high 20 points, adding four steals, in home win against Montgomery.

4. North Penn-Mansfield (2-1): Senior Jaime Palmer came on strong late last season and is picking up where she left off through three games. Palmer is averaging 9.7 rebounds per game and also has helped the Tigers hold three opponents to 46 points or fewer. Lizzi Welch also is hitting the boards hard and has pulled down at least six rebounds in all three games. Point guard JoAnne McNamara is another stat stuffer and played well in Thursday’s 46-40 loss at Athens, scoring nine points and dealing a season-high seven assists.

5. Muncy (3-1): It is young, but Muncy is making good early-season strides and won its two games in convincing fashion last week. Aleaha Bigelow was a defensive menace in Saturday’s 56-19 against CMVT, making a career-high 14 steals. Her sister Avery is a freshman who is making an immediate impact, dealing seven assists and grabbing seven rebounds in that win. Sophomore Mia Edkin is growing more confident as well and produced 19 points in two victories, adding five steals in a 60-35 win against Neumann. Muncy has a tough one tonight as it heads to South Williamsport for a rematch of last year’s District 4 Class AA quarterfinal.

PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Bell Hitesman, Muncy and Eva Rice, North Penn-Liberty: Hitesman is building off a promising sophomore season and has been one of the area’s premier post players through four games. Hitesman has opened the year with four consecutive double-doubles an produced 28 points and 15 rebounds in Muncy’s victories. Hitesman blocked six shots against Neumann and added three assists against CMVT. Rice is putting together an impressive senior season and displayed her explosiveness in two games last week. Rice went for a career-high 20 points against Wyalusing before one-upping herself Saturday and erupting for 31 points against Williamson.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Hughesville at Sullivan County: This has become a nice rivalry the last four years and it has been defined by close, exciting games. Tonight could be the latest in that run as these two district title contenders collide. These teams have built winning programs upon tenacious defense and fierce competitors so this should be a fun one. Moving forward, it can help both teams, too, since it is a non-league game.

Chris Masse covers high school basketball and may be reached by email at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse

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