What Kristen Dolan loves most about coaching is the fact that every single person on a team brings something different.
It’s like a puzzle, and it’s her job to figure out how all the pieces fit together.
The Williamsville South girls basketball team has the corner pieces in place.
There’s 6-foot-5 freshman Amari DeBerry, a big-time Division I recruit ranked near the top of her class nationally. Sophomore point guard Hannah Dolan, the coach’s daughter, has excelled scoring the ball and setting up her teammates this postseason.
Sharpshooter Lauren Lassiter and the versatile Naomi DeBerry, Amari’s older sister, provide the senior leadership needed on any team looking to make a deep playoff run come March.
Fill in the center with the non-stop motor of junior Tatyjana Scalisi and a senior like Grace Stahl coming off the bench, and you have the makings of a team bound for the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Class A final four in Troy this weekend.
“I feel we have these pieces to the puzzle, and they’re just starting to come together,” coach Dolan said. “I love finding their strengths and then finding how their strengths can help the overall team concept.”
Luckily for Dolan, she’s reached this stage once before. She guided the Billies to their first-ever state title in 2015.
For all but one girl on the team this season, however, Friday’s 8 p.m. game against Section VIII’s Elmont Memorial at Hudson Valley Community College will be a brand-new experience.
The lone holdover from that championship team three years ago is Lassiter. Only instead of coming off the bench as the silent three-point specialist, the 5-foot-11 guard is now the elder statesman on a roster that looks up to her and co-captain Naomi DeBerry for guidance.
“They lead through helping us out and telling us where to be if we need help, but mostly through their actions,” Hannah Dolan said. “They’re just great leaders. You see them do something and it helps you out. They don’t even have to say anything.”
“They call us the little chickens,” Amari added, “and they’re the mother hens.”
The similarities don't end there.
That 2015 group was led by the senior trio of Grace Licata, Emily Smith and Erin Egan, who were surrounded by young and emerging talent like junior Brianna Neeley, sophomore Zaria McCullough and Lassiter.
South lost its first game of the season that year to Section V’s Pittsford Mendon and then rattled off 25 straight wins to capture the NYSPHSAA crown.
“I remember the excitement,” Lassiter said. “We were all so excited every single day and the coaches were so excited. We would always bring that into everywhere we went, and we definitely feel the same way now.”
The Billies opened up the 2017-18 campaign with a 69-46 loss at Mendon but turned the tables with a 65-47 win over the Vikings during the Far West Regionals last Saturday to improve their record to 19-5. Four of those losses came against top Rochester foes – Mendon, Our Lady of Mercy and Bishop Kearney twice – and the other was a four-point loss to Cardinal O’Hara, the top team in Western New York.
“I think just the work ethic is the biggest part,” Lassiter said. “Both those teams just worked so hard every day pushing each other in the gym, and both of those teams are definitely the most family I’ve ever felt on a team before. The only difference is that we’re the older ones now instead of the younger ones, really.”
Either way, Williamsville South is hitting its stride at the right time.
Injuries to Lassiter and Naomi DeBerry kept the duo out for the first part of the season, which somewhat altered coach Dolan’s approach early on.
“We took baby steps because I do have a younger group,” Dolan said. “I made sure I didn’t put everything in right away. I made sure I kind of just built a little bit at a time.”
Dolan, who gives a lot of credit to school trainer Bob O’Malley, said there was a noticeable progression once the girls started to heal from some of those injuries and return to the lineup. But it didn’t click on the court until the end of January and beginning of February during 25- and 23-point wins over Sacred Heart and Amherst, respectively.
The Billies also held a 45-44 lead with less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter against O’Hara, which carried an 86-game winning streak over WNY opponents into the Feb. 17 matchup on Main Street.
“We learned so much,” coach Dolan said. “I can bring those experiences up in the locker room, like let’s remember what we need to do because of this. ... Scenarios, situations, recognizing things on the court, so I just keep telling them we gotta prepare and work on the things we need to work on to make sure we’re in it and all together. I think that’s when we’re at our best.”
South was at its best in its regional matchup against Mendon.
Six players scored at least five points, led by Amari DeBerry’s game-high 18 and Hannah Dolan’s 16. Lassiter made three treys as part of her 11 points, and a swarming defense only allowed one Viking to reach double figures.
“They know that they need to lean on one another, and they’re there for each other on and off the court,” coach Dolan said. “When there’s injuries or sickness or you’re having an off night, they’ve got their teammates and they’ll lean on them for a little bit.”
The tight-knit nature of this group, reminiscent to that of 2015, is what allowed the Billies to get over the obstacle of losing in the Section VI overall Class A final each of the last two years.
That and the confidence of the “younger players” like Amari DeBerry and Hannah Dolan, both in their third seasons of varsity ball, as they come into their own as the future leaders of a team with championship aspirations.
“Since last year when we lost, we knew that maybe last year it wasn’t our time,” Hannah Dolan said. “But this year, with this group of seniors and everybody else coming up, it was just – this was our year to do it.
“It’s great to make it there, but we don’t wanna just be there. We want to go as far as we can.”