Six players were lost to graduation and the top returning player is out indefinitely with a foot injury, but Toll Gate girls’ basketball coach John Paolino is still smiling these days.
“I’m probably the most excited I’ve ever been,” he said.
While optimism is part of his coaching style, there’s also reason to think it’ll be justified this season. Even with the personnel losses, the Titans have a strong senior nucleus and the deepest freshman class they’ve had in quite some time. They also feel like they’re picking up steam in a steady rebuilding process that began when Paolino took over in 2011.
“I’m very excited about the young kids – most freshmen we’ve ever had, some with experience, some without experience, but they’re athletic,” Paolino said. “And we have a great core group of seniors. I’m kind of excited for them because they’ve come a long way since their sophomore year. And they’re excited because they understand they’ve got some younger players that can play with them. They understand that we’re really trying to build the program and they can see the future is looking good.”
This year will be about taking more steps in the right direction. The Titans went winless in Paolino’s first year at the helm – their second straight winless campaign – but started to break through last year, getting their first league win and adding a pair of non-league victories.
While they were happy to get into the win column, the Titans also realized they left a few more victories on the table.
“The four seniors, they understand we didn’t win anything our first year, but we started to compete at the end of the year,” Paolino said. “Last year, we won three games and we were a better team by the end of the year. The reality is they understand we should have won seven. They have that game experience and they know what to do differently in those situations.”
Turning close losses into victories would accelerate the building process, and the Titans should be well-equipped to do it.
The top returning player is senior Laura McGuire, who is still recovering from an injury suffered during soccer season. When she returns, she’ll be a major piece as the team’s point guard and most likely its top scorer.
For now, the Titans are building with what they have, starting with the other returning seniors. Guards Sarah Sagnella and Jackie Falso have the most experience and are capable outside shooters. Both had big summer league seasons.
“They had a great summer league shooting the ball,” Paolino said. “They played well. We were competitive and we were putting points on the board.”
Senior forward Jillian Eaton is also back. The trio of Eaton, Falso and Sagnella gives the Titans a strong veteran presence.
“They’ve bought into our system since day one,” Paolino said. “They’re like a coach’s dream. I was saying the other day, ‘They’re great citizens for our basketball program.’ They’ve done everything we’ve asked and they’ve modeled that behavior and attitude for the other kids.”
Two new seniors – Kathleen Morlock and Jacky Rhaney – are out for the team. They don’t have much basketball experience but bring athleticism to the table.
“They’re athletes and they’ve got great attitudes,” Paolino said. “Whatever we need them to do, they’re willing to do.”
Junior Brooke Casacalenda, a contributor last year, returns to the lineup as a key part of the front line. Juniors Holly Gerber-George and Gillian Hamilton and sophomores Cassie Messier and Elizabeth Costello are also on board.
Then there’s the freshman class, which runs nine deep. Several will play just JV, but some will swing to varsity and a few may make immediate varsity contributions.
Heading that list is center Hannah McNulty, who already made a splash as a starter on the varsity soccer team. Paolino has her penciled in as the starting center.
“She’s got one or two years of basketball experience, and she played this summer in the summer league,” Paolino said. “She’s a great athlete and a great competitor. She can finish. She’s going to contribute right away.”
Laurel TenEyck, another freshman who saw summer league action, also has a chance to chip in on the front line. In the backcourt, Taylor Jackson could have an impact, especially in the absence of McGuire.
The freshman class also includes Courtney Iadevaia, Lauren Stamps, Katelyn Stamps, Braelyn Casacalenda, Marisa Giard and Kristi Castellone.
“With that many freshmen with talent and athleticism, we’re going to be a lot quicker and a much better defensive team,” Paolino said.
That defensive improvement should pave the way for more success, but the key for the Titans will be making the improvement count at the offensive end. They were plagued by turnovers last year.
“Our main goal this year is to get them to play smart,” Paolino said. “If you looked at the game film last year, we turned the ball over too much. A lot of the turnovers were unforced errors where we just made bad decisions. Our focus this year is doing a better job handling the ball, passing the ball, making better decisions. We cannot have that massive amount of turnovers. If we can handle the pressure and not make those unforced, bad decisions, we’ll be in decent shape.”
The Titans will open the season with a pair of non-league rivalry games. They’ll host Warwick Vets in an Injury Fund event on Thursday at 5 p.m., before hosting Pilgrim next Tuesday at 7 p.m. League play does not begin until Jan. 8.