The Laurel girls hoped to build on the momentum generated by last season’s historic run to the WPIAL Class 2A title game.
However, after the Lady Spartans’ championship game loss and season-ending 55-51 setback to Bellwood Antis in the first round of the PIAA tournament, most activity came to a screeching halt due to coronavirus precautions.
“It’s tough with there being no summer leagues and team camps. We just had some open gyms this summer,” Laurel coach Matt Stebbins said. “We’re coming off a good year and we were young last year. We still wanted that time to work with our younger kids, just like everyone else.”
Laurel realizes that the season could face some speed bumps, too.
“We’re just trying to prepare like we’re going to be playing this season. That’s pretty much all we can do,” Stebbins said. “We know there are going to be cancellations and postponements. We just have to take it day by day and week by week.”
The Lady Spartans welcome back six letterwinners from a team that won Section 1-2A with a 12-2 mark. The team finished 17-9 overall. Junior Lucia Lombardo is the squad’s oldest returning player. Sophomores Danielle Pontius, Regan Atkins, Reese Bintrim, Joselynn Fortuna and Johnna Hill all lettered as well.
“Five of them started games for us last year because we had injuries. All six of those girls played a lot of minutes and in a lot of key roles,” Stebbins said. “We’re trying to find depth beyond that and see where that takes us.”
Despite the limited offseason work, Stebbins is happy with the players’ progress.
“They are not acting like freshmen. They seem to be more mature, in terms of where they see themselves on the team,” he said. “As freshmen, they didn’t know where they fell in and had to work into that. This year, it’s like they know their roles. All six of the lettermen know their roles and now it’s finding depth.”
Laurel hopes to rely on its defense. The Lady Spartans had one of the WPIAL’s top defenses (36.5 points per game allowed) and only gave more than 50 points in four games last year.
“Last year, everything was built off our defense. That’s what carried us to the WPIAL title game. We’ll just build more off that,” Stebbins said. “Offensively, we’ll be more versatile inside-out this year. We have a lot more options where we can score different ways. We don’t have one or two main scorers, but we have a bunch who can score and defend, which makes a good team go, especially as far as we did last year.”
Laurel faces a new challenge this year as it moved to Class 3A. The Lady Spartans are in a section with Mohawk, North Catholic, Beaver Falls, Ellwood City Lincoln, Freedom and Riverside.
“It’s tough going up into a 3A section now with Mohawk and North Catholic. Now, you have the WPIAL 3A winner (Mohawk), 4A winner (North Catholic) and 2A runner-up (Laurel) in the same section,” Stebbins said. “Freedom is very good, Ellwood returns everyone. Riverside is always good and Beaver Falls will be improved this year. It’s a tough section. All seven teams are tough; you can’t sleep in this 3A section, by any means.
“We’re going to continue to grow as a team and as a program,” he continued. “Hopefully, we continue to progress like we did last year. There are a lot of unknowns this year. As a coaching staff, we’re very hopeful we’ll have a year and a complete year.”