The defending Great Northern Conference girls' basketball champions began the path to a title defense on Monday, as Lakeland Union High School looks to build off an unbeaten conference season in which it went 19-3 overall.
The path to that championship defense - which includes a 17-game conference winning streak dating back to 2016 - might have some twists and turns, however, as Lakeland must replace two first-team All-GNC players in Sydney Ziebart, who was third in the state with 6.5 steals per game, and 1,000-point scorer Lilith Schuman.
The Thunderbirds do return four girls who started at various points during the season, but each of them must play different roles. Getting everyone up to speed, particularly knew players, is the task in the early part of the season.
"I have to go against everything I love doing, because I love skill work and fundamentals, but the first week of practice we have to learn offense and team defense," LUHS head coach Melissa Ouimette said. "I have spend a lot of time explaining the concepts of our offense and the concepts of our defense and putting in some press-breaks and stuff like that. That's what the first couple weeks is all about, so we have some idea of what offenses and defenses we're trying to run as a team."
Schuman and Ziebart combined to average more than 27 points per game last season, which accounted for nearly 43 percent of the team's offensive output.
Lakeland does return leading scorer Melissa Bruckner, who averaged 17.4 points per game last year as a sophomore, along with seniors Zoey Ziebart, Riley Curtis and Olivia Killian.
"What's nice about those girls is that they actually know team offense and team defense," Ouimette said. "They're actually my four captains this year and I'm looking for them to give lots of leadership for the other girls and help out when people are actually struggling. It's nice that they have the confidence coming into this season because they aren't struggling with learning new things and new offenses. Sure, I'm going to have a couple new things I'm going to add throughout the year, but they have a higher level of confidence than most. Once the others catch up with learning offenses and defenses, they'll be ahead and we can start working on skill work."
Everything during the first work of practice must be accelerated and condensed, however, as the girls must pick things up quickly.
The first game of the season is on Tuesday, leaving just seven days of practice between the start of the year to the first game.
"I have to speed it up quite a bit," Ouimette said. "This is a very difficult start to the season because we have a scrimmage on Friday against very good teams and we also have a game on Tuesday against Newman (Catholic), who we struggled against a little bit in the (summer) league. We beat them at the D.C. Everest team camp, but they have a very good team. This first week, we have to come in here and play like we know what's going on. So I have to spend a lot of time working on fast breaks, offense, presses and the thing about our offense and our system, we do a lot more things that other teams. A lot of teams don't press or they don't work on fast break."
While the four returning starters, joined by Vivian Trapp and Abby Parris, who both received meaningful minutes at times last year, will help the process a bit, Ouimette must find some other role players. Spooner transfer Emma Salquist is likely to be an impact player in the backcourt, but many of the new players are young.
Ouimette believes Lakeland has a talented group of freshmen this year and as many as nine could be vying for a varsity roster spots.
"I do have some spots that are solid from last year, but I could see having 12 or 13 people on the varsity this year," Ouimette said. "We're getting new uniforms and I've ordered extra uniforms. What's really nice about these last couple seasons is the WIAA allows us to play three halves, so we might even try to see if we could do a JV2 team. Obviously I have people coming back that are definitely going to have a spot, but there are some spots that could be open for some underclassmen."
Lakeland opens the season on Tuesday at Newman Catholic. A full season preview will be available in the Tuesday edition of The Lakeland Times.
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SabatoNick.