— Ryan rides a deep roster of experienced players to a big victory over Nazareth Academy in the annual Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament.
Facing a neighborhood rival after a two-week layoff, the Archbishop Ryan girls basketball team was rusty. But with strong veteran leadership, the Ragdolls found a way to win.
It had been exactly two weeks since Ryan had dropped a pair of games in a season-opening tournament in Baltimore. But one of the best luxuries of having such an experienced group is knowing how to win games when the team is not playing its best basketball.
“When you haven’t played in as long as that, you’re going to make mistakes,” Ryan head coach Jackie Hartzell said after Saturday’s game. “But our effort was great from the start.”
The scene was the first annual Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament, held Saturday at Holy Ghost Prep in Bensalem. Matched up with familiar neighborhood foe Nazareth Academy, the Ragdolls led throughout and ultimately posted a 51-29 victory, the team’s first of the season.
However, Ryan was at times plagued by prolonged scoreless stretches, and the team turned the ball over more than Hartzell would have liked. The Ragdolls led just 18-9 at halftime, allowing a very young Pandas team to hang around, even though Nazareth’s first field goal did not come until the latter stages of the second quarter.
Enter the Ryan Eight.
Hartzell has called her tremendously deep roster of players “interchangeable” in the sense that there is not necessarily one or two stars players who stand out above the rest. Instead, Ryan boasts eight players in its rotation who all possess similar skill sets on both sides of the ball. This group includes five seniors (Kalene Coffey, Kelsey Dale, Melissa Rizzo, Amanda Weindorfer and Courtney Helm) and two juniors (Taylor Adair and Alison Szyszko) with varsity experience, as well as sophomore Danielle Skedzielewski. Of that group, all but Weindorfer scored in the game against Nazareth.
Coffey led the way with 17 points for the Ragdolls, but players like Weindorfer and Helm (two points) made huge contributions to the victory. The 5-foot-11 Weindorfer helped neutralize Nazareth’s best player, senior forward Nicole Dombrowski, who was frustrated with foul trouble and finished with only five points. When Nazareth made a run late in the second quarter, Helm drew a key charge against Dombrowski and that injected some life back into Ryan.
Point is, Ryan can beat you in a lot of ways, and that balance and selflessness will be key to the team’s success when its Catholic League schedule kicks off on Jan. 4 against Lansdale Catholic.
“We struggle at times to score the ball, so we really like to concentrate on doing the little things right,” Hartzell said. “Today, Coffey had a big game, and next game it can be someone else. Having such interchangeable kids makes us deeper than we have been in the past.”
With the first win of the season finally out of the way, the Ragdolls will continue to work on doing those little things right. The team’s final tuneup before league play will come in the Lady Panther Holiday Classic, a three-game, post-Christmas tournament in Pickerington, Ohio. The Ragdolls will play three games in three days from Dec. 27-29, and the eight-hour bus ride each way will allow the team to continue strengthening its off-the-court bond.
“We’re taking all 23 kids in our program, varsity and JV, and it’s something we’re really excited for,” Hartzell said. “Not only will we get to play three games to give us a better idea (of) where we’re at as a team, but it also allows us to spend more time together. We spend so much time together working on the court, so to go on an overnight trip as a team is something we’ll all really enjoy.
“I’m just very fortunate to have these five seniors leading this team. They play hard every time they go out there, which is all you can ask for. You want to give yourself a chance to win. As long as the effort stays there, then the things we need to work on will be correctable.”
The Ragdolls’ play produced an admirer on the other sideline, Nazareth head coach John Turner. Last year, in his first season as head coach, Turner guided an experienced, senior-laden group to an 18-win season; now, with many of his top players graduated (namely Danielle Gasperi, Bridget Sobon and Raya Stearn), he is starting anew with a bunch of new faces. The changeover has contributed to the team’s 2-5 start.
A fierce competitor, Turner hates to lose any game, and that is especially true when it pertains to local rivals. However, if he was finding any silver lining in the 22-point loss, it was that it came at the hands of a team that Turner hopes resembles where his current group will be in a season or two.
“We knew going in that Ryan was a good team,” he said. “They apply pressure, they’re good in the half court defense, which is something we’re going to see every night in our league games. They’ve all been together for three or four years to the point where they know each other’s tendencies and what to expect. We aren’t there yet, but we’ll keep pushing to become a team like that in a year or so. Those kids have been together awhile, and it shows. In time, we’ll resemble them in a lot of ways.
“That said, we’re frustrated with the loss. We aren’t a team that will hang our hats on any kind of moral victory.”
For her part, Hartzell hopes her team’s best days are ahead. The entire group is focused, but none more so than the seniors, who know they have one last chance to try to ruffle the feathers of the league’s annual elite (Archbishop Wood, Archbishop Carroll and Cardinal O’Hara) and try to win a title before their time at the school is over.
“I think that for the most part, the girls don’t understand how fast it goes until senior year gets here,” said the former basketball player at St. Hubert. “Now, suddenly there’s an ‘Oh my gosh, it’s almost over’ feeling. We’re excited for the Catholic League schedule, but I don’t want to wish it away because we want to make sure they enjoy every minute of this. One day, they’ll look back and miss it, so we want them to make the best of the time they have left here.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org