Getting back in the gym gave Mohawk mixed emotions.
The Lady Warriors, who had their season stopped abruptly ahead of the PIAA Class 3A quarterfinals due to pandemic restrictions, will always wonder what might have been after rolling past Beaver for their first WPIAL title and beating their first two PIAA tourney opponents by at least 17 points.
At the same time, being back in the gym has given the returning players a sliver of normalcy while the pandemic – and all its uncertainty — continues.
“It’s been a weird entire situation since March 13. There are certain situations you’ll always remember. You remember where you were and what you were doing when things got shut down,” Mohawk coach Mike O’Lare said. “It’s definitely weird. I can’t remember what it’s like to be a high school student, but it’s incredible they do what you ask them to do every day. No matter what new mandates or situations they are faced with, they are going to do whatever it takes. We knew our games were taken from us. We’re just trying to get the point of getting back on the floor to play a game. These girls will do whatever it takes to get to that point.
“It’s definitely been a unique preseason. It’s nice to have all 18 kids in the same gym. It was nice to be practicing on Day 1, which is positive for us, but it’s definitely not a normal practice situation.”
Mohawk finished 24-3 in the shortened season. The offseason was limited due to restrictions, but a veteran core could help make up for any gap.
“I guess form the Xs and Os aspects, most times, heading into every season, every coach feels behind,” O’Lare said. “There is a level of comfort knowing we have the majority of them back and they understand what we went through. I really trust those kids. There’s not much panic. The kids returning know what we’re doing. The difference there is we have eight freshmen. We’d do a disservice to them if we don’t get them up to speed quickly.”
The Lady Warriors graduated two seniors and one starter in Karly McCutcheon. However, seniors Nadia Lape, Paige Julian and Hannah McDaniel and junior Jordan Radzmynski return to the starting lineup. Senior Abby Shoaff, who started every game as a sophomore and came off the bench last season, is back, as is senior Alexis Shiderly.
“We really have five kids who have played significant minutes and some girls we hope can play significant minutes. With that new group coming in, we feel like there are several in that mix,” O’Lare said. “The hardest part, when you lose that offseason competition, you lose the ability to see kids go play. You’re almost having to develop kids in game scenarios now, letting them get some minutes in there and see if they can produce. We’ll have to do a lot of getting them in there and seeing what they can do and if they can do it when it counts.”
Practices have been good at preparing the players, though.
“I know, for sure, that, with having that many kids, we have great competition,” O’Lare said. “Until someone gets us, we’re still the best team (in Class 3A). For the younger kids, they are going against some of the best players, I believe, in 3A.”
The Lady Warriors hope to dictate tempo and push the ball.
“We have some incredible athletes in that group. We try to play the game as fast as we possibly can. We’re hoping to increase the speed of games this year. That’s our strength,” O’Lare said. “We’re just trying to play our style of basketball and really focus on our team, that way we’re ready to go, no matter who we play and on what day because there could be cancellations and changes. At the drop of a dime, based on the scenario, we want to be ready to play whomever. When you return this many kids and athletes and kids who can play basketball, it’s an exciting year for us.”
Like last year, Mohawk’s section should be difficult. It got even tougher this year with the addition of North Catholic (the WPIAL Class 4A champ) and Laurel (WPIAL Class 2A runner-up).
“We love that stuff, I think. We want to bring the best in,” O’Lare said. “The top two teams in our league played in the final last year. The stronger our section is, the better chance you have to win in the end. Our nonsection schedule is as tough as any team’s, too.”