Deb Engels seemed remarkably upbeat as she readied her Cumberland High girls' hoop team for a two-plus hour practice at the Wellness Center on Monday afternoon.
You'd figure her mind-set instead would border on concern, given the fact she'll return only one starter – her daughter Kate – from a team that closed last year's Division I-North campaign with a dismal 4-14 mark.
The league should be highly-competitive once more, but Engels expects this season's crop to be more than capable of doing some damage.
“Kate has been my point guard, but I'm going to move her to the 'four' (or power forward) because I have more resources this time around,” she stated. “I have more guards coming in. I took in 15 freshmen this year, and I have 15 returnees who either saw some time at the varsity level or played quite a bit on the JV team.
“I'm keeping 30 for both varsity and JV, and I've never done that before,” she added. “It would be really hard to cut any of the freshmen because their talent and work ethic is phenomenal.”
Of the dozen contingents in our publications' readership area – that is, the Blackstone Valley – only four in all three Rhode Island Interscholastic League divisions finished with a .500 record or better. (They include St. Raphael in Division II-Central, Lincoln in Division II-North and Davies and North Smithfield in Division III-North).
Still, most coaches share Engels' hope that their clubs will improve this time around.
That being said, here is a list of players and teams to watch as the campaign draws near:
Cumberland finished in fourth place in II-North in 2012-13 behind eventual state champion La Salle (17-1 during the regular season), Smithfield (11-7) and Ponaganset (5-13), but Engels has high hopes for this new group.
In fact, she claimed she already knows who will start when the Clippers travel to Mount St. Charles for an Injury Fund tilt on Friday night.
Engels indicated she will move her daughter to strong forward because of the abilities of freshman point guard Julianne Ross. She will join sophomores Taylor Fay and Sarah Marsland at shooting guard and small forward, respectively, and senior Erin Rosa at center.
“Erin didn't start last year because I had four seniors, but she did play some at the varsity level,” she noted. “I've got more flexibility now. Julianne is an excellent ball handler with great court vision; with her it's innate. She just has it. You can't teach the skills she has.”
Other key contributors, she hopes, will be shooting guard Danielle Attardo and small forward Allie Baglini, both senior quad-captains with the younger Engels and Fay, not to mention juniors Caitlin Cotter, Madisyn Tremblay, Cassidy Nunes and Kerrin Williams.
Among the underclassmen: Sophomore sisters Christine and Sydney Tilton; and freshmen Brianna Frankina and Mackenzie Walton.
“We've only been in here practicing a week, but I'm loving it; because of the talented freshmen, it's making everybody work harder,” she explained. “Last year, I had no one to push the seniors because they knew they were locked in. These freshmen have won numerous state middle school championships in basketball and softball (most of them representing North Cumberland), so they're just used to winning.
“That mentality is carrying over,” she continued. “I can put a freshman against a senior (in one-on-one drills), and they don't care; they're not intimidated at all. They go in and want to win those battles.
“Our goal is to finish at least third in Division I-North. I don't know what everyone else looks like (in the league), except probably La Salle, but we want to finish at .500. I still believe these girls can fare better.”
Also in I-North, Woonsocket placed last with a 1-17 record, but hopes to improve upon that finish with more experience coming back.
St. Raphael captured a Division II-Central co-championship with Moses Brown a season ago, as both squads mustered terrific 14-2 marks, but the Saints dropped a tight semifinal loss to the Quakers.
That still doesn't sit well with head coach Fred Saunders.
“They won it by a few points, and the fact they had 37 free throws had something to do with it,” he stated. “Even if we don't achieve a better (regular-season) record, I'm hoping we can improve upon our competitive, collective mind-set. That means we need to play at a more consistent level for a full game, every second of 32 minutes.
“We also want to move deeper into the playoffs,” he added. “Our ultimate goal is to win a state championship, and we're going to have to work harder in order to get there. There are some tough teams in II-Central, and throughout the entire division. It's not going to be an easy job, but with our talent and depth, we should be right in the hunt.”
Saunders will bring back three starters from that squad, among them junior Seun Shittu and the senior-junior tandem of sisters Rybecca (a co-captain) and Danyele Gonzalez.
“Seun is our best pure athlete, and the fastest girl on the team; she's been a very good player for us, as she averaged 10 points a game (as a guard),” he said. “Danyele is our point, and she averaged eight (per tilt); she was injured for the playoff game against Moses Brown, and that didn't help.
“Rybecca will be our small forward, and we expect her to be our leading scorer.”
Fellow senior co-captain Kelsy Lynch has earned a starting bid at center, as has junior Kaylee Oliver at forward.
“She only played half the season last year because she was a transfer in from Case (in Swansea),” he offered. “I think she could be one of the top scorers in the state, as she has one of the most fluid three-point shots I've seen in a long, long time.”
Saunders also has been blessed with another transfer, sophomore forward Olivia Jenetta of Barrington, who will see significant court time with senior center Felicia Baccari.
“She's going to bring us some solid inside scoring; she's got good touch around the rim, and she's also a lefty, which makes her shot tough to defend. She'll be another key rebounder for us as well,” he said. “Hopefully, we'll be stronger on the boards, as that will allow us to get out on the break and score some easy points, then get back into our pressure defense.”
The only other contingent to manage a .500 record of better came from Lincoln, mentored by Andy Hallam.
The Lions (8-8) took fourth in II-North behind Scituate (14-2), Johnston (13-3) and North Providence (9-11), but ahead of Burrillville and Mount St. Charles, both of whom finished 5-11.
As far as Hallam is concerned, Lincoln should be vastly better than a year ago, and his reasoning is simple: He has four starters returning, including senior quad-captains Casie Beauchemin, Kellyn Dyer, McKenzie Cavanaugh and Shirley Carrington, all of whom played critical roles in the Lions' capture of a second straight R.I. Division I fast-pitch softball crown.
Beauchemin will be the one directing the offense, while Dyer is the shooting guard, Carrington a small forward and Cavanaugh the power forward.
“We may go to a four-guard system like Villanova,” Hallam mentioned. “We're not the biggest team in the world, but we're smart and experienced, and this is a very hard-working group. Meg Chatowsky, a sophomore who has really been exploding to the basket and picked up our defense, will be a '2' or '3.'
“Last year, she was a swing player (between varsity and JV), but she's going to see a lot of playing time for us,” he added. “Then there's the girl we call 'The Warrior,' and that's (sophomore) Maddie Georgeu. She's really a good scorer. She catches the ball and sees the hoop well. In my opinion, she'll be one of the better scorers in II-North.”
Others he anticipates making solid contributions include freshmen Jenna Andrews and Bethany Denio. Hallam claimed they bring a wealth of talent despite their youth.
“We don't have the greatest talent, but we'll compete with anyone because, frankly, these girls don't like to lose,” he said. “I coach the (varsity) baseball team, and I've coached boys for years; these girls really match their intensity. It's something to behold.”
At Burrillville, three-year head coach Lindsay Rachlow has stepped down from her position to join her old Broncos' mentor, Marty Crowley, as his assistant with the King Philip Regional High girls' team.
The good news: Another of Crowley's ex-players, Samantha Stanton – also a teammate with Rachlow – has taken the reins, and will have a plethora of superb players returning.
Seniors Tori Libby (who helped the girls' soccer squad snare the Division III state title just a few weeks ago) and Ruby Perry will lead the way, as well as juniors Sam Liberty, Betsy Dumais, Catherine Keable and Lauren LaMontagne.
How far the Broncos go will be determined by how Stanton's underclassmen jell with the experienced players.
Then there's the Mounties, who like Burrillville went 5-11 last winter. Second-year head coach Jessica Shiel has three starters coming back, including senior guard/forward Noreen Mulledy, classmate and forward Amy Schmitt and junior point guard Emi Cadden.
Unfortunately, Shiel discovered in November that feisty senior guard Theresa Pereira will not play at all due to a knee injury sustained in a state playoff soccer game.
“But she is going to come back to be a peer leader to her teammates,” she noted. “All six of my seniors are involved as leaders of one or more organizations within the school, so that's huge for us. It's going to help.”
Besides the trio of returnees, senior guard Ally Goralski will start after missing most of the campaign with mononucleosis; Shiel claimed she has “a fantastic shot.”
She also plans on guard Becky Tillinghast and forward Katelyn Gagnon, both seniors, to play ingeral roles in MSC's improvement.
“I absolutely think we're better; this is my second year, so now the girls understand more about my system, and they're very hard workers,” she stated. “I also know the girls were neither happy nor satisfied with last year, and I think they want to prove something to themselves and the rest of the league.
In Division II-East, Tolman and Central Falls shared the cellar with identical 2-14 records, but both are hell-bent on achieving .500 status – or better.
Veteran Tigers' chief Tammy Drape has two returning starters, among them senior co-captains Marlene DeBarros and Francheska Kelly, and she's planning on seeing some magic from sophomore guard Aicha Kone, not to mention classmate Fenda Konte.
“Aicha will start, and I'm really looking to Fenda at center,” Drape offered. “Fenda's tall with a long body, and she's young and raw, but she's got all the right tools. We're working on improving them right now.
“We're going to be really young and inexperienced; I've got eight freshmen, 10 sophomores and only two juniors and seniors (each),” she continued. “We do, however, have some good, skilled players. We'll have to see how well they mesh with Marlene and Francheska.”
At nearby Central Falls, coach Jayar Santos has some experience coming back as well, and leading that list are seniors Yesenia Biascochea, Selena Martinez, Paula Meneses, Erika Carter, Agatha Vargas, Jessie Barrios and Marien Peraza.
Junior Lesley McBurney also figures to be a significant figure in the Warriors' plan to move up in the II-East standings.
The interesting question here is this: Can Division III-North co-champions Davies and North Smithfield repeat the fine 11-3 seasons they had a season ago?
The Northmen's mentor, David Ruff, chose to retire after his club dropped a tough semifinal decision to eventual state champion Juanita Sanchez last March at Rhode Island College. Still, his assistant, Alisha Pirri, will replace him, meaning North Smithfield will have plenty of similarities in coaching style.
Pirri lost nine supremely-talented seniors, among them Keila Strick, to graduation, though she also has some solid scorers returning.
Among them: Sophomore Sam Kent, whom Ruff called “probably the key player on the team,” seniors Katherine West, Angela Barber and Angela Medeiros; juniors Emilie Guertin and Melissa Juhr; and incoming freshman Lorenza O'Donnell.
With the Patriots, they too lost some significant athletes to graduation, though Joe Handy and Scott Cooper have vast experience at leading their troops not just on the court but the softball diamond as well.
Bishop Keough managed a 6-8 final mark a season ago and hopes to regain the success it had two years back, when it finished well above .500.
Under long-time head coach John Lickert, Shea muddle through a 5-9 league season and took fourth, ahead of only winless St. Patrick.
In order to get back into the winning fold, Lickert will rely upon some solid seniors, among them Kathleen Gomes, Lourdes Anariba and Amie Mbye. The Raiders also will return junior standouts Karla Argueta, Carol Rodriguez and Brenda Paiz (with those seniors, they led the girls' soccer team to another playoff berth); and sophomores Katrina Horne, Tatiana Ramos, Jackie Teixeira and Monica Vieira.