MARPLE >> Reality set in for Kenzie Gardler and Molly Paolino the moment they attended their first practice with the Cardinal O’Hara basketball team.
Hannah Nihill and Mary Sheehan were not there anymore.
Night after night, for three straight years, coach Linus McGinty — who is still going after all these years — could count on the starting five of Sheehan, Nihill, Gardler, Paolino and Maura Hendrixson.
During their time together, O’Hara advanced to the PIAA Class AAAA championship game. The Lions were denied a return trip to Hershey last
March when they lost on a buzzer-beater against Boyertown in the PIAA Class 6A semifinals. The Lions ended the 2016-17 season with a 26-4 record.
“The first practice we had, it kind of hit us,” said Gardler, a two-time All-Delco and Villanova recruit. “This is not the same, it’s very different. It was sad because we had been with Mary and Hannah for so long, for three years, but it’s so different now.”
Nihill is turning heads as a freshman starter at Drexel. Sheehan is now a Saint Joseph’s Hawk. And so the torch has been passed on to Gardler, Paolino and Hendrixson.
This is their team now.
“It’s definitely a different vibe this year without them, but we’re just trying to get back into it and get a new persona as a team,” said Paolino, O’Hara’s scrappy defensive guard. “We’re definitely younger and we have new players. It’s a new feeling.
That means Gardler, Paolino and Hendrixson will embrace a leadership role.
“The last couple of years, it was so great being able to look up to Mary and Hannah,” Gardler said. “It’s different that now me, Maura and Molly have to be the leaders. We’re just getting used to it, but we’re making progress both on and off the court.”
Notwithstanding the disappointing finish last season, O’Hara captured the Catholic League championship.
“We have a bull’s eye on our backs now,” Gardler said. “We know that we have to play every game as hard as possible because every game is going to be close. We want to get back to the Palestra, that’s one of our main goals. It’s something we want to do as seniors and to get all the young players to have a chance to experience the Palestra. It was so fun for us and we want them to be able to carry on the legacy of O’Hara basketball.”
Last season Hendrixson earned All-Delco honors, primarily for her shooting ability and defensive prowess. Now she will fill the void at point guard vacated by Nihill, the two-time Daily Times Player of the Year. Gardler and the Drexel-bound Hendrixson are versatile guards who can handle any assignment on the floor.
“Maura is stepping up as point. Kenzie will be the same shooter. Kerry (Patterson) will be a good scorer and defender,” Paolino said. “We’ll have a lot of talented girls who will step up and do great things.”
In addition to Gardler and Hendrixson, Paolino gave her verbal commitment to Catholic University in the fall. Emily Helms is drawing interest from Washington College (Md.) and Megan Richter is an Immaculata recruit. Patterson has Stonybrook, Holy Family and Colgate on her radar.
“Everyone might think that we’re not going to do as well this year. That, I think, is a good thing,” Gardler said. “We’re going to be the underdog for most of our really tough games, which is weird because we are the defending Catholic League champions. That’s OK. We’ve lost a lot of great girls, but we’re going to come back and shock some teams.”
Renie Shields, who is a member of the Big 5 and Saint Joseph’s Athletics Hall of Fame, returns for her second season as head coach of Archbishop Carroll. The former longtime Carroll assistant guided the team to a 17-7 record and a trip to the quarterfinal round of the PIAA Class 5A tournament last season.
Senior guard Molly Masciantonio averaged 10.5 points in her junior campaign and is the team’s lone returning starter. Sophomore forward Erin Sweeney showed flashes of her potential last season.
Top newcomer Harlem Jennings, a 5-9 junior guard, transfers from Bishop Guilfoyle.
“It’s a goal-oriented team,” Shields said. “Our ability to play together will determine our success.”
Last winter, Bonner & Prendergast finished with a 14-9 record and advanced to the second round of the league playoffs. This year the Pandas are oozing talent and have positioned themselves to make a run at a PCL title.
Senior guard Nyah Garrison recently committed to the Naval Academy. Garrison is the team’s top scoring threat alongside Dakota McCaughan, a spectacular sophomore guard. Junior Maeve McCann is a solid two-guard. Emily Monaghan (junior guard) is a weapon from beyond the arc and Katie Logan (senior center) is a presence in the low post.
With more than 500 victories on his resume, Tom Stewart begins his 44th season coaching high school basketball. This will be his 24th season coaching the Pandas.
“We hope to be a stronger and deeper team than last year with depth at every position,” Stewart said. “If we are able to blend our returning players with our newcomers and freshmen we should be in the thick of the Catholic League and hopefully a return to the state playoffs. As always defense wins games and we will have to be a strong defensive team to be successful in the Catholic League.”