Williamsville South girls basketball coach Kristen Dolan was returning from a scrimmage in Batavia last month when she realized she needed a few things at the supermarket. So she pulled into one before arriving home. There Dolan saw one of the players who helped the Billies win a state title last spring before graduating.
“There’s Erin Egan and her dad,” Dolan said. “And here I am, crying in the produce section of Wegmans.
“All of those girls have a special place in our hearts.”
As a male high school coach put it recently, “You love the kids, love what they do for you. Then they leave.”
It happens every season, in every high school sport. It’s happening to Williamsville South now. Each year, teams and coaches have to turn the page on what happened in the past. The cast always changes, and there’s no guarantee that the magic will return.
Yet the memories never go away. Every high school player or coach should win a championship.
“I couldn’t say it any better,” Dolan said. “For a team to experience what happened with the girls and boys” – sectional champions last season – “was amazing. The stars have to align. There are so many things that have to work out for you. But it’s such a great experience.”
Dolan will always remember the contributions of Egan, Grace Licata and Emily Smith, who all have moved on to play college ball, to that title. Egan is at Daemen, Licata plays at Buffalo State, and Smith is at Allegheny.
“We keep waiting for them to walk through the door,” the coach said. “We miss them dearly, but it’s part of life. It’s a new season, a big challenge is ahead.”
It will take until at least February to find out how the Billies have dealt with the situation of being defending champions. But Dolan does have a few early clues.
“What I love is that the returning players have accepted the offer to step up,” the coach said. “They understand the new roles. We do have nine girls back from last year’s roster, but their roles changed. We’re trying to bring the best out of each of them.”
On the other hand, a one-sided loss to a strong Cardinal O’Hara team last week no doubt showed that there’s still plenty of work to be done this season.
The biggest change in role probably is for Brianna Neeley, who picked up her game in the playoffs last season and was a key reason why Williamsville South won the Class A championship.
“She recovered from a knee injury, which caused her to miss her sophomore season,” Dolan said. “She found her rhythm at the end of last season. She’s looking very strong. She’s a force inside, and she’s developed parts of her game.”
Neeley is one of the four co-captains on the roster. Kelsey Stasiak and Nina Ragland are seniors, while Zaria McCullough is a junior.
“Kelsey and Nina provide energy and defensive intensity – some toughness,” the coach said. “Zaria has been a starting point guard since eighth grade. She can handle the ball, sees the floor well. She’s also a scorer, so we might try to see if we can move her to the wing.”
While optimism about an upcoming season is important, there are too many variables involved to be very confident – not that coaches need an excuse to worry about everything.
“At one point in a big game last year, Neeley was going to get called for a foul in the backcourt,” Dolan said. “She wasn’t, and it changed all of the dynamics of the game.
“We have a lot of moving parts. We are a work in progress. The girls know they have a huge target on their backs after last year, and they know each game will be a battle.”
Around the rim
2014-15 state champions: Williamsville South, Mount St. Mary.
2014-15 Section VI champions: Jamestown (AA), Williamsville South (A), East Aurora (B), Chautauqua Lake (C), Panama (D). Cardinal O’Hara and Mount St. Mary won the Monsignor Martin titles.
2014-15 All-WNY first team underclassmen: Jenna Einink, Chautauqua Lake; Emma Brinker, East Aurora; Anndea Zeigler, Cardinal O’Hara.
2014-15 All-WNY second team underclassmen: Ericka Taplin, Williamsville North; Olivia Schmidt, Holland.
2014-15 All-WNY third team underclassmen: Jordan Heinold, Immaculata; Summer Hemphill, Cardinal O’Hara; Sarah Young, Sacred Heart; Erica Martinsen, Williamsville East.
Who’s good? Jamestown lost the area’s top player in Chrisanna Green, but simply reloaded. Williamsville North and Clarence should threaten in AA play. Lake Shore is young and good, while Wilson and Olean are usually very competitive. In the south, Randolph and Chautauqua Lake lost first-team all-stars due to graduation. That may open the classes up to new faces.
With two of the area’s best players back, Cardinal O’Hara has a big head start toward a successful season in the Monsignor Martin Association. The eye-opening romp over Williamsville South may be a sign of good times in the near future for the Hawks.
Welcome back: Martinsen had transferred to a New Jersey school over the summer, but opted to return to Williamsville East in November. She arrived too late to help the Flames’ soccer team, which made it to the state’s final four, but she’ll boost the basketball team.
New rules: There are about three or four large changes for the upcoming season, and they will affect how the game is played. There will be no more one-and-one free throw situations. When teams commit their fifth foul in a quarter, the penalty is two shots. That should make free-throw shooting even more important.
The number of timeouts per team has changed from four full ones and two 30-second ones to two fulls and three 30s. In addition, teams can advance the ball to midcourt with a timeout if there’s a minute or less left in regulation time or an overtime.
Finally, if a ball is deflected out of bounds by the defense before it reaches half-court, the shot clock does not reset. That will reward defensive pressure.
Coaching changes: This was a pretty typical year for coaching turnover. There will be new faces in Lancaster, Niagara Falls and Cleveland Hill, among others.
Who will be Prep Talk Player of the Year? It looks wide open. Hemphill is the only local player to make ESPN’s list as one of the state’s best players. Brinker was All-WNY as a freshman, and seems destined to be a contender for that title during her high school career. You can probably add Samantha Britton of Kenmore West and Claire Wanzer of Amherst to the list of names above.