Senior Panthers are ready to run in hopes of title defence

Quick movements - Jessie Swackhammer, left, tosses the ball outside of the key amid tight defence by Emma Lamorre. Both returning vets will be counted on to lead the Panthers this season. (Adam Bramburger/Gazette staff)

Smaller squad changes its game plan amid lofty expectations




Figuratively and literally, there’s a new floor for the PECI Senior Basketball Panthers this year. In each instance it will be tested vigorously throughout the Bay of Quinte Conference season.

The first sense of the word speaks to the sense of lofty expectations resting on the club’s shoulders  as the Panthers have swept through regular season and league playoffs undefeated for two years running. Once again, graduation has taken a toll with a generational player in Vanessa Willis and a capable cast moving on.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” said Emma Lamorre, one of four senior returnees alongside Mikayla Leavitt, Jessie Swackhammer, and Chloe Marshall. “A lot of the other schools are going to try to beat us and not let us win.”

Leavitt said the team’s vaunted status can also be taken as an opportunity.

One-on-one – Chloe Marshall attacks the key as Becca McHugh defends during PECI Senior Panthers basketball practice Monday. (Adam Bramburger/Gazette staff)

“It’s going to put a lot of pressure on us as well, but that might be what pushes us to win it again.”

She said the team has to rise above that pressure by forming tighter bonds and playing as a team.

Coach Rob Garden knows about the expectations and he wanted to shelve that talk early on.

“We talked about our past successes at the first practice and said that’s the last we’re going to talk about it. Nobody cares what you’ve done in the past,” he said. “Our goal as always is just to get prepared for the playoffs… We want to win the Bay of Quinte again and these girls want to make some amends and get to OFSAA for our second berth in three years.”

The focal point during the first week of school was in getting there. Looking at the makings of their team, Garden and co-coach Ernie MacMillan noticed an athletic, tenacious bunch that outside of Grade 11 post player Myla DeBoef, the most valuable player for last year’s Junior Panthers and Emily Wight,  they didn’t have a lot of height or size.

That the Panthers christened the new boards under their feet with sprints, fast break dribbling, and other drills that emphasize speed should give an indication they appear ready to capitalize on the run.

“We’re really going to have to redefine ourselves and change the way we play. Watch the Raptors as a recent example. In a year, they changed everything they did and were very successful,” he said. “We’re going to have to use our athleticism. We’re going to have to play uptempo and push the ball.”

Defensively, the coach said the Panthers will have to try to dictate the style of the game whereas last year their size allowed them to sit back an bit and let teams come to them. The hardest part will be the mentality as in the past, the tendency was always to conserve and control the ball a bit.

Pushing the pace plays right into the type of game the likes of Leavitt, guard Sydney Davies, and two-way spark plugs Madalynn Snider and Trinity Roche like to play. They can carry the ball themselves or offload to some impressive shooters like Swackhammer, DeBoef, or Becca McHugh. “All they want to do is run,” Garden said. “Last year, we didn’t limit it, but we didn’t promote it as much as we should have. This year it’s going to change and it’s something I think we’re really going to enjoy.”

Garden added all four returning seniors had opportunities to play minutes and show confidence last year, though they sometimes deferred to older players. This year, they’ll have the ball in critical moments and be ready to perform. The graduates of a Bay of Quinte silver medal-winning junior team will push them. So, too, will newcomer Alexa Prinzen who joins the team after transferring from Quinte Christian, as she becomes comfortable in her surroundings.

Lamorre said throughout the roster, PECI has players who can step in and contribute.

“I don’t think there will be many kids who sit on the bench and don’t play. We’ll all get equal time, mostly. Wanting to get on that court is going to push us all to play harder.”

The test of the new systems and how battle-ready the Panthers are will come via four tournaments against some of the region’s stronger competition. The team plans to play an extra tournament this year in order to prepare for the playoff grind. This weekend, their first challenge will be against Kingston’s Regiopolis-Notre Dame Panthers.

The Panthers are eager to show off a summer of improvement — they played together as one team at Loyalist College’s summer league — a natural intensity, and a burning desire to keep winning. After all, they have their expectations and their ability to push themselves and their foes to the limit.

“We’re going to go as hard as we can and as far as possible,” Leavitt said. “Our playoff goals are pretty high. They’re definitely set up there. We have to not get that in our heads and strive for it ourselves.”