Having lost First-Team All-Stater Danielle LeBlanc to graduation, the Pilgrim girls’ basketball team probably won’t have a better lineup this year than it had last year. But the Pats will have every opportunity to deliver a better season.
After two rough years in Division I in which the Pats went 1-35 in league games, the program is back where it belongs in Division II. Losing LeBlanc hurts, but there’s a nucleus back – and a level playing field.
“We had quite a bit of success in Division II before we moved up,” said head coach Ian Smith. “We had two tough years in Division I, so the girls are excited to come back to Division II. Who knows what’s going to happen? But it’s exciting to know that we can hopefully be competitive again.”
The Pats were out of place in D-I from the beginning. They went winless in the 2010-11 season before going 1-17 last year. Moving to D-II won’t make the Pats instant contenders, but it should certainly be a better fit. Before the move to D-I, Pilgrim posted four consecutive winning seasons.
“Not that there aren’t great players and great teams in D-II, but in terms of the teams, there’s more balance,” Smith said. “I think we can compete every night.”
The first step will be forging a new identity at the offensive end. LeBlanc, who’s now playing at Rhode Island College, averaged 18 points per game last season and tallied more than 1,000 for her career. As a team, the Pats scored only 33 points per game last year.
“She was our leader and our go-to player in almost every situation,” Smith said. “The thing we have to figure out is who’s going to score. I’m confident we can defend. Scoring is our concern.”
Thankfully for the Pats, there’s a solid core ready to pick up the slack. Three starters return – seniors Betsy Heidel and Katelyn Reph and sophomore Megan St. Jacques.
“It certainly helps having those three back,” Smith said. “They took their lumps, but we were playing against the best teams in the state. Hopefully, that experience against the best can help them out.”
Heidel will anchor the front-court for the Pats and will look to build on a strong finish to her junior season. Heidel helped spark Pilgrim’s one Division I win, which came late in the season. She followed that up with another good performance in a non-league win.
“She was the key to our victories at the end of the year,” Smith said. “It really clicked for her, and the girls are going to follow her lead.”
Reph teamed with LeBlanc in the backcourt last year and will become the team’s primary ball-handler this season.
“She had a really strong summer,” Smith said. “Her ability to score has improved and she’s showing a lot of leadership for us.”
St. Jacques started on the wing as a freshman, and she can be a presence both inside and out.
“She made some rookie mistakes last year, but she’s got the experience now,” Smith said. “I think she’ll be a lot more confident.”
The Pats have several other players eager to step in, including four more seniors – Janelle Paliotte, Stephanie Sweet, Britney Howland and Caroline Axelrod. Juniors Madison Craik, Haley Donahay and Claire Birney are also in the mix, along with sophomore Alexa Annotti.
Paliotte, Sweet, Craik and Donahay are slated to play forward, with Howland, Axelrod, Birney and Annotti in the back-court.
“It seems like we have a good group that’s going to play well together,” Smith said.
At the offensive end, it might be a grind at times. Smith wants his players to keep working.
“Danielle was a natural scorer,” Smith said. “We don’t have natural scorers, but we have hard workers who know how to score. It’s just about gaining confidence.”
With that as the backdrop, the Pats are focusing much of their attention on defense. Throughout their run of success before the move to D-I, defense was a calling card. It should be a strength again.
“It is and it has to be,” Smith said. “We have to play defense.”
The Pats have been practicing for a week and have already jelled, thanks to a unique scrimmage opportunity. On Saturday, the Pats traveled to Block Island and played Block Island School, a Division III team.
“It was a fun experience,” Smith said. “I think it brought the team together.”
The Pats will open the regular season on Thursday when they visit Toll Gate at 7 p.m. for a non-league game. They’ll have two more non-leaguers before opening up D-II-Central play against Warwick Vets on Dec. 20.
The Pats hope it marks the beginning of a resurgence.
“The top 16 teams make the playoffs,” Smith said. “I think we have a tough schedule, but I’d love to be one of those 16.”