The Ches-Mont League had a down year in 2013-2014 with only two teams advancing to the PIAA Class AAAA tournament and six teams making the district playoffs overall. Four of those teams bowed out in the first round, but the two that advanced had playoff runs to remember: West Chester Rustin and Bishop Shanahan.
The Golden Knights advanced to the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals before falling to Cumberland Valley while the Eagles clinched a state playoff berth for the first time in school history.
Both teams return with many key players from their state qualifiers, but many Ches-Mont teams have the talent to challenge them throughout the year.
An incredibly young league last year, the Ches-Mont has players with more experience and depth as the league is primed to be one of the best in District 1. Here are five things to watch in the Ches-Mont and in area girls basketball this season:
1. How good is West Chester Rustin?
The Golden Knights lost just one player from the PIAA semifinal team, Adashia Franklyn, who graduated and is currently playing at St. Joseph’s. Rustin returns All Ches-Mont American first teamers Noelle Powell and Casey Warley along with Emily Walls, Annie Pitts and Katie O’Hare, all of which are seniors. The Golden Knights also have a new, but familiar coach this year in Colette Dugan, who takes over for the departed Leah Kim. Dugan last coached Rustin in the 2011-12 season.
With Franklyn, Dugan has the Golden Knights running an up-tempo offense, which will pay huge dividends as the season wears on.
“We’re working a lot harder to rebound and get all the fast breaks we had last year,’ Powell said. “We have a really small team compared to other teams and we’re really going to try and push the ball on them. It’s definitely a run-and-gun (offense). That should be one of the edges we have on our opponent.’
The sky is the limit in Westtown as Rustin was just two wins away from capturing state gold last season. This year, the Golden Knights have just one goal on their mind.
“We are definitely not settling for anything shorter than a state championship,’ Powell said. “We remember how it felt losing in the state semifinals and are not doing that again. We’re trying to go all the way this year.’
Rustin has the talent and experience to accomplish that goal. This season could be a special one in Westtown.
2. The Ches-Mont National is very good.
Downingtown East is the defending champions in the Ches-Mont National and return four starters, but will fight with four other teams for two spots in a extremely talented division. The biggest threats to unseat the Cougars are Bishop Shanahan and Downingtown West. Both teams posess two star players in Ciara Forde (Shanahan) and Maddie Dew (Downingtown West) along with a deep starting five that will challenge for the division crown.
Coatesville and West Chester East have the opportunity to play spoiler to the Downingtown party. Both teams could have growing pains with new head coaches, but possess talented players in Nafisa Saunders (Coatesville) and Holly Hager (W.C. East).
“It’s going to be a battle to get into the top two,’ said Downingtown West head coach Dave Johnson. “(Downingtown) East and Bishop Shanahan are right there with us and Coatesville is dangerous.’
“The division has a handful of teams that will beat each other up,’ said Bishop Shanahan head coach Fran Burbidge. “We’ll see who survives.’
Overall. there is no team to sleep on in this division. Every game will be a dogfight.
3. Welcome back, Bob Schnure.
After a District 1 Class AAAA first round loss to Abington in February, Bob Schnure retired after 35 seasons as a head coach in the Downingtown school district.
The retirement didn’t last long.
Schnure returned to the Downingtown East bench in July and for good reason. The Cougars only lost one senior on last year’s squad and have plenty of talent returning, including All Ches-Mont National Division first teamer Paige Warfel.
“At my age, it’s a year-to-year basis on whether to return after each season,’ Schnure said. “With a team full of juniors, there is an incentive to stay. But I really still enjoy coaching.’
With Schnure back on the court, the Cougars may have the upper edge in an extremely competitive Ches-Mont National Division.
4. Plenty of new coaches in the area.
In addition to Schnure’s return, all three West Chester schools will have new coaches this season.
At Rustin, Colette Dugan has returned to coach the Golden Knights after two seasons away from the program.
“I’m really excited to be back,’ Dugan said. “The kids are great and they all have high basketball IQ’s, which makes it easy for me as a coach. It’ll be easy and going to be a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to it.’
Erin Listrani takes over at West Chester East while Greta Neff is coaching West Chester Henderson.
“I’m just excited to get started,’ Listrani said, who served for 10 seasons as an assistant at East. “The program has really turned around over the last few seasons. There’s more excitement here. I’m just looking to build on that.’
Neff was an assistant at Downingtown West for 10 seasons under Dave Johnson. At Henderson, she will get the opportunity to rebuild a young Henderson squad.
“It’s a little bit more on my plate (being a head coach), but the kids have been great,’ Neff said. “They’ve responded really well and they’re ready to work. It’s just a matter of being in charge now. Coaching is coaching.’
Fred Ellzy left Coatesville to take the Unionville job. Replacing Ellzy at Coatesville is a familiar face in Rick Nelms, who has won over 200 games coaching boys basketball, including winning 100-plus games with the Red Raiders’ boys hoops team.
Mark Pedersen takes over at Octorara to round out the Ches-Mont League coaching cycle, which has a total of six schools with new head coaches.
Conestoga has a new head coach this year as well. Chris Jeffries takes over for John Jones, who retired after 18 seasons.
5. Wide open second playoff spot open in Ches-Mont American.
Rustin is the favorite to repeat as Ches-Mont American Division champions, but which team will take that second playoff spot?
Great Valley lost five seniors, but have leading scorer Ashlyn Smith returning. Smith leads a team dominated by sophomores and juniors. Some are seeing major varsity minutes for the first time.
Kennett is the biggest threat in taking that second playoff spot away from Great Valley with Jess Hussey leading the way. Hussey is a double-double threat on any given night and leads a high-powered offense with Aimee Armitage and Miranda Hill.
Unionville is also in play for that playoff spot with Ellzy leading them. The Indians have depth with five seniors, including Lexi Shanahan and Micayla Flores handling the offense. Their experience could get them into the playoffs.
“Those three teams in our division have a shot,’ said Great Valley head coach Alex Venarchik. “It’s going to be a battle.’
“The American Division is a strong league,’ Ellzy said. “It’s going to be balanced and teams are going to be able to knock each other off. This division will be enjoyable to play in.’