BY CHARLIE ROTH
A year older, stronger, more mature.
This time, however, they won’t sneak up on anyone.
Jim Thorpe’s unbelievable freshman class of 2018 are sophomores now.
Skyler Searfoss, Olivia Smelas and Leila Hurley — all freshmen last year — were the core parts of an Olympian team that won 26 consecutive games last season, captured the Schuylkill League Division I title and won the school’s first league championship at Martz Hall in close fashion over a very good Mahanoy Area team.
The trio was joined in the starting lineup by the now-graduated Natalia Richards and Kristen Scott, who returns as a senior this season. That group forged the 26-win season a year after the Olympians managed only six victories.
They were expected to be good last year, but the level of success they experienced would have been difficult to predict. It was a team, after all, built around freshmen.
This year, they enter the season in most people’s eyes as the league favorite, albeit with a target on their collective backs.
That’s the nature of the Schuylkill League. Nobody just gives in and surrenders.
Nobody is more aware of that than Olympians’ head coach Rob Kovac, now in his 13th season at the helm.
“Obviously, on paper this year’s Olympian squad looks very good,” Kovac said in his preseason prospectus. “They are also very aware that no games are played on paper.
“This squad will deal with going from being the hunter to the hunted on a nightly basis.”
The Olympians have to enter the season as the favorite. Richards is gone, and she was very good at running the show from the point, but her graduation will allow Searfoss to step in at what Kovac says is her natural position.
Smelas, a 6-footer, Hurley and Scott all return to the starting lineup and will most likely be joined by 5-foot-11 sophomore Leah Snisky as the fifth starter. Snisky was a solid contributor last season whose role grew as the season progressed.
For good measure, freshman Mackenzie Yuhas, at 5-9 a player Kovac refers to as “an electric athlete who has the potential to fill up a stat sheet” is being counted on as a major contributor.
If the Olympians don’t give the rest of the division enough to think about, Tamaqua will.
The Blue Raiders, who finished with 21 victories (12 in Division I play), earned the Division I wild card and reached the PIAA playoffs in Class 4A, return all five starters and would like nothing better than to knock Jim Thorpe off that perch atop the division.
“We have a senior-laden team that will have four years of varsity starts under their belts,” head coach Erika Davis said in her prospectus. “They’ve been through enough games and enough situations together that could help contribute to success this season.”
Senior Emma Kuczynski enters the season with more than 1,400 career points and inside the top five on the school’s all-time scoring list. Jamie Zuber, Emily Titus, Jen Frederickson, Rebekah Hromyak and Baylee Reinhardt are all seniors that will be counted upon heavily as Tamaqua fully intends to make a run at the division and district titles.
So, with all that returning at the top, what does it mean for the rest of the division?
Well, nobody’s is caving.
Blue Mountain won 13 games last season and was a District 11 Class 5A semifinalist. The Eagles have a vast array of experienced players returning, including seniors Emily Fasnacht and Rachel Lukacz, who along with sophomore Lindsay Kutz combined to provide about 25 points a game last season.
Nobody in the division can afford to look past the Eagles. The same can be said for North Schuylkill, where head coach Rich Wetzel returns leading scorers Mya Wetzel and Sarah Wagner, along with experienced players Joslin Stitzer, Jackie Mogish and McKenzie Fetterolf from a team that was a District 11 Class 3A semifinalist.
At Pine Grove and Pottsville, new coaches will be on the bench.
Both Kyler Burke at Pine Grove and Mike Dooley at Pottsville have young teams that have talent, but may not be ready to challenge the division’s top tier.
Pine Grove has a roster that includes only three seniors, but does have three returning starters in senior leaders Alli Butler and Abbie Brown along with sophomore Mikaili Donmoyer, who is coming off a very solid freshman campaign.
At Pottsville, Dooley inherits a squad that has only two seniors and two juniors, but a strong group of six sophomores and seven freshmen.
Lourdes ruled the division last year, but may have a difficult time maintaining that status in what might be the most unpredictable division in the league.
The Red Raiders won 23 games overall, claimed the District 4 Class A title and reached the PIAA state title game in Hershey before falling to Berlin Brothersvalley.
The cornerstones of that team — Francis Czeponis, Lilly Bickel and Sierra Coleman — have all graduated. Only juniors Emma Shimko and Katie Sandri return as starters on a team that has no seniors.
Of the teams looking to ascend to the top of the division, the list has to start with Williams Valley and Minersville.
They met last season in the District 11 Class AA quarterfinals with the Vikings winning 54-41. Both return solid talent and both can make a run at the division title and the berth in the league playoffs that goes along with it.
Williams Valley is another team with a new coach with Clarissa Winter taking over. Scoring leader Mya Achenbach has graduated, but starters Emily Kramer and Maddy Bordner, both seniors, and Tori Rabuck and Elyssa Yeagley, both juniors, return to lead the way.
At Minersville, veteran coach Jared Homa has one of the league’s best scorers and 3-point shooters in Alex Kroznuskie in the fold for her senior season. Juniors Shea Hossler and Megan Horan, along with sophomore Abby Adams, all stepped forward as young players last season.
Out in the west end, Tri-Valley coach Clark Romberger has only junior Autumn Connell returning as a starter. Romberger, however is excited about a freshman class that, over time, has the potential to turn the program’s fortunes.
This division has belonged to Mahanoy Area for a few years, and the Bears will be solid once again with a very solid one-two punch of seniors Jordan Karmonick and Emily Lawrence.
It’s just possible, however, that a Nativity team with all five starters returning and the addition of transfer Kami Abdo from Pottsville could be the team to beat.
Mahanoy Area gave Jim Thorpe a real scare in the league championship game last February at Martz Hall, then won the District 11 Class AA title and reached the PIAA semifinals. However, three new starters will join Karmonick and Lawrence on the floor and that should make things interesting.
Nativity, which won 10 games last season and was a District 11 Class A semifinalist without a senior on the roster, is in prime position to make a run at the division title and much more. Seniors Allison Clarke, Tori Hunyara and Elizabeth Stavinski are joined by juniors Samantha Heenan and Kaitlyn Zemantauski as returning starters. The addition of Abdo, a starter at Pottsville last season as a freshman, makes the Golden Girls even more dangerous.
Marian won 20 games last season, finished second to Mahanoy Area in District 11 Class AA and reached the state playoffs. The Fillies, however, under veteran head coach Paul Brutto face a numbers problem with only 10 girls in the entire program.
On top of that, standout point guard Emily Shaud will miss at least part of the season after suffering an injury over the summer.
Weatherly is another team with a new coach as Brian Billig takes over for Kevin Kringe, who guided the Wreckers to 18 victories, a District 11 championship and a berth in the state quarterfinals where they lost to league rival Lourdes. Graduation took four starters including All-State player Emily Zoscin from that team, so the new mentor faces a bit of a rebuilding process.
At Shenandoah Valley, Chris Conroy returns leading scorer Victoria Donovan, 3-point ace Abby Conroy and two other starters in Alyssa Buchanan and Joie Rodnick. Coach Conroy feels his team has the ability to compete with anyone else in the division on any night.
Back in the fold
Republican-Herald All-Area Player of the Year Abbey McGee of Mahanoy Area has graduated.
So, too, have All-Area first-team selections Bickel of Lourdes and Zoscin of Weatherly, along with second-team selections Lexi Plachko of Pottsville and Williams Valley’s Achenbach.
A very talented group of All-Area selections, however, will return to the court around the Schuylkill League this season.
From the first team, Minersville’s Kroznuskie, Tamaqua’s Kuczynski and Jim Thorpe’s Searfoss and Smelas are all back.
From the second team, Jim Thorpe’s Hurley, Marian’s Shaud, North Schuylkill’s Wagner and Panther Valley’s Erika Dubosky return.
And, from the honorable mention list, returnees include Shenandoah’s Donovan, Blue Mountain’s Fasnacht, Nativity’s Heenan, Mahanoy Area’s Karmonick and Lawrence and North Schuylkill’s Mya Wetzel.
Contact the writer: email@example.com; 570-628-6025
Schuylkill League Division I
- Head coach: Ruth Weidman (14th season, 29th overall)
- Last season: 13-11, 7-7 D-I. District 11 Class 5A semifinalist
- Returnees: Emily Fasnacht (sr.), Rachel Lukacz (sr.), Leah Pishock (sr.), Kaylee Yeager (sr.), Lindsay Kutz (soph.), Abby Beam (soph.), Karlie Zelinsky (sr.), Sydney Costa (jr.)
- Newcomers: Deanna Fidler (soph.), Megan Thompson (so.), Ava Peel (fr.),
- Outlook: Eagles have the talent and experience with five key seniors returning to make a strong postseason run. Likely in the mix for the division’s wild card spot in the league playoffs. Should exceed last season’s victory total.
- Head coach: Rob Kovac (13th season)
- Last season: 26-2, 14-0 D-I. Division I champion, overall league champion, District 11 Class 4A runner-up, PIAA first round.
- Returnees: Kristen Scott (sr.), Skyler Searfoss (soph.), Leila Hurley (soph.), Olivia Smelas (soph.), Leah Snisky (soph.), Taylor Craigie (sr.)
- Newcomers: Mackenzie Yuhas (fr.), Haley Smelas (fr.), Darcy Leight (fr.), Hailey Fiorito (soph.)
- Outlook: Point guard Natalia Richards has graduated, but the Olympians, who won 26 straight games last season before falling to Bethlehem Catholic in the District 11 4A final, shouldn’t miss a beat. Last year’s freshmen standouts, Searfoss, Smelas and Hurley, are a year older, more mature and refined as players and are joined by senior Kristen Scott as returning starters. Jim Thorpe has offense, defense and depth and enters the season as the division and league favorite.
- Head coach: Joe Berezwick (3rd season, 21st overall)
- Last season: 8-14, 2-12 D-I
- Returnees: Tinaya Klotz (sr.), Hailey Miller (soph.), Alexix Solomon (jr.)
- Newcomers: Ashley Marchessault (jr.), Aaliyah Fisher (soph.), Emma Schappell (sr.), Kelsey Gaston (jr.)
- Outlook: Indians are young, with only two seniors. Top returnees Klotz, Miller and Solomon combined to provide about 18 points a game last season. For the team to improve on last year’s victory total and contend for a district playoff berth, young players will need to adjust quickly to the varsity level of play.
- Head coach: Rich Wetzel (4th season)
- Last season: 9-14, 6-8 D-I. District 11 3A semifinalist
- Returnees: Mya Wetzel (jr.), Sarah Wagner (jr.), Joslin Stitzer (jr.), Jackie Mogish (jr.), McKenzie Fetterolf (jr.)
- Newcomers: Kamryn Mengel (fr.), Maddy Wetzel (fr.), Savannah Gawrylik (fr.), Maddy Hall (fr.)
- Outlook: No seniors on the roster, but don’t count the Spartans out. Six players with significant varsity experience return, including leading scorers Mya Wetzel and Sarah Wagner. Freshman class is expected to be very strong with several members who will be counted upon to make an immediate impact. Spartans will be strong, but are a longshot to contend in a division in which last year’s top two finishers return 9-of-10 starters combined.
- Head coach: William Lynn (5th season)
- Last season: 6-16, 0-14 D-I
- Returnees: Erika Dubosky (jr.), Megan Pascoe (sr.), Gianna Steber (sr.), Riley Wehr (jr.), Brynn Jones (sr.)
- Newcomers: Sera Robin (fr.), Natalie White (jr.)
- Outlook: Panthers opened last season with five straight wins, then struggled the rest of the way. A fairly young team with only three seniors, they’re not likely to make much noise in the division. A solid goal would be to improve on last season’s victory total.
- Head coach: Kyler Burke (1st season)
- Last season: 12-11, 7-7 D-I. District 11 Class 4A qualifier
- Returnees: Alli Butler (sr.), Abbie Brown (sr.), Mikaili Donmoyer (soph.)
- Newcomers: Mayomi Dutton (soph.), Bailey Dorson (soph.), Tayla Olt (sr.), Madison Betz (so.), Kailen Felty (fr.), Lindsey Wolff (fr.), Kira Shollenberger (jr.)
- Outlook: Burke takes over as head coach and inherits a squad with three solid veterans in Butler, Brown and Donmoyer to build around. The remainder of the team is very inexperienced. Young players will need to step up quickly. Matching last season’s performance would be a solid accomplishment and a great building block.
- Head coach: Mike Dooley (1st season)
- Last season: 11-12, 8-6 D-I, D-11 5A semifinalist
- Returnees: Katie Conrad (sr.), Madison Dalton (sr.), Jules Plachko (soph.)
- Newcomers: Taylor Welsh (soph.), Alex Blum (fr.), Livia Hable (fr.), Ava Fegley (soph.), Jill Guzick (soph.), Julia Kowalski (soph.), Abby Kruss (jr.), Krysten Mylot (jr.)
- Outlook: Very young team with only two seniors and two juniors to go along with six sophomores and seven freshmen as Dooley takes over as the new head coach. Tide will compete. They always do. But, it’s a tough year to be a very young team within a division that has so many teams stacked with experience.
- Head coach: Erika Davis (5th season)
- Last season: 21-6, 12-2 D-I. Schuylkill League Division I wild card, District 11 4A third place, PIAA qualifier
- Returnees: Emma Kuczynski (sr.), Jamie Zuber (sr.), Emily Titus (sr.), Jen Frederickson (sr.), Rebekah Hromyak (sr.), Baylee Reinhardt (sr.), Sophia Boyle (jr.)
- Newcomers: Emma Hope (jr.), Mackenna Kane (jr.), Serena Jones (soph.)
- Outlook: Raiders have the talent, depth and experience to make a run at division, league and district titles. Kuczynski is one of the league’s elite players and the rest of the cast brings talent and veteran poise to the table. Most likely challenger to Jim Thorpe at the top of what stacks up to be a very strong division.
- Head coach: Mike Klembara (36th season)
- Last season: 23-7, 11-2 D-II. Schuylkill League Division II champion, District 4 Class A champion, PIAA Class A state runner-up
- Returnees: Emma Shimko (jr.), Meryl Czeponis (jr.), Katie Sandri (jr.)
- Newcomers: Peyton Kehler (jr.), Allie Albert (jr.), Emily Shaffer (jr.), Terri Reichard (soph.)
- Outlook: Francis Czeponis, Lilly Bickel and Sierra Coleman, the keystones to the Raiders’ run to the PIAA Class A final, have all graduated. Shimko and Sandri return as starters, while Meryl Czeponis was a key contributor who will join the starting lineup. Beyond that, the Red Raiders will be very young without a senior on the roster. Defending their Division II title from last season could prove difficult, but Lourdes can never be counted out.
- Head coach: Jared Homa (10th season)
- Last season: 12-11, 8-5 D-II. District 11 Class AA qualifier
- Returnees: Kaylee Whalen (sr.), Alex Kroznuskie (sr.), Shea Hossler (jr.), Megan Horan (jr.), Abby Adams (soph.)
- Newcomers: None provided
- Outlook: Kroznuskie provides the Miners with one of the best scorers and 3-point shooters in the league, while Hossler, Horan and Adams gained valuable experience last season. Minersville will be in the mix in what should be a wide-open Division II race.
- Head coach: R.J. Gilgore (3rd season, 6th overall)
- Last season: 1-21, 0-13 D-II.
- Outlook: No information provided.
- Head coach: Clark Romberger (6th season)
- Last season: 6-16, 2-11 D-II.
- Returnees: Autumn Connell (jr.), Faith Colahan (soph.), Lexi Snyder (soph.)
- Newcomers: Brooke Adams (sr.), Hope Colahan (fr.), Gianna Poleti (fr.), Meghan Canfield (fr.), Carmen Kazmarczyk (fr.)
- Outlook: The Bulldogs are among the youngest teams in the entire league with only one returning starter in Connell and two others — Faith Colahan and Snyder — with varsity experience. Still Romberger, in his sixth season at the helm, feels this group, which includes four talented freshmen expected to contribute at the varsity level, can help reestablish Tri-Valley as a competitive Schuylkill League team.
- Head coach: Clarissa Winter (1st season)
- Last season: 14-10, 6-7 D-II. District 11 Class AA semifinalist
- Returnees: Emily Kramer (sr.), Tori Rabuck (jr.), Elyssa Yeagley (jr.), Alexandra Bogle (jr.)
- Newcomers: Jen Sincyr (soph.), Hannah Savage (soph.), Mackenzie Carl (soph.)
- Outlook: Vikings are another team that should be in the mix for division honors as Winter takes over as the head coach. Kramer, Rabuck and Yeagley were key components of last year’s squad that lost to eventual state semifinalist Mahanoy Area in the district semifinals.
- Head coach: Tom Scheeler (6th season)
- Last season: 26-3, 13-0 D-III. Schuylkill League Division III champion, Schuylkill League runner-up, District 11 Class AA champion, PIAA Class AA state semifinalist
- Returnees: Jordan Karmonick (sr.), Emily Lawrence (sr.), Claudia Clark (jr.), Meghan Macleary (jr.), Cealinn McGroarty (jr.)
- Newcomers: Alexis Miller (sr.), Allyson Babinsky (soph.), Kaziah Streisel (soph.), Autumn Moss (jr.), Madison Quick (jr.), Caitlee Kessock (soph.), Haley Moss (soph.)
- Outlook: The Bears suffered some solid big graduation losses, but the return of both Karmonick and Lawrence to the starting lineup will soften the blow. Clark, Macleary and McGroarty saw enough action during last year’s successful run to step up this year as starters. Mahanoy isn’t the division favorite, but will likely be in the hunt and should be a comfortable district qualifier.
- Head coach: Paul Brutto (30th season, 38th overall)
- Last season: 20-5, 11-2 D-III. District 11 Class AA runner-up, PIAA Class AA qualifier
- Returnees: Emily Shaud (sr.), Julia Kreisl (sr.), Macy Alansky (sr.), Abbey Digris (sr.)
- Newcomers: Lindsay Reinoehl (sr.), Mia Nemeth (jr.), Kerrigan Digris (fr.), Ashley Pleban (fr.)
- Outlook: Like last season, the Fillies are short on numbers with a roster that has only 10 players. Shaud, a talented guard, was injured over the summer and isn’t expected back before January. Matching last season’s success will be difficult.
- Head coach: Scott Forney (4th season)
- Last season: 10-13, 3-10 D-III. District 11 Class A runner-up
- Returnees: Tori Hunyara (sr.), Allison Clarke (sr.), Samantha Heenan (jr.), Elizabeth Stavinski (sr.), Kaitlyn Zemantauski (jr.), Olivia Rugh (soph.)
- Newcomers: Kami Abdo (soph., transfer from Pottsville), Madison Kramer (fr.), Calen Quick (fr.)
- Outlook: With everyone returning and a great group of newcomers, the Golden Girls have earned the nod as Division III favorites. They have experience, size, speed, scorers, defenders and rebounders.
- Head coach: Chris Conroy (13th season)
- Last season: 8-15, 3-10 D-III. District 11 Class AA qualifier
- Returnees: Victoria Donovan (sr.), Abby Conroy (sr.), Alyssa Buchanan (sr.), Joie Rodnick (jr.)
- Newcomers: Haely Sosna (soph.), Faith Gottshall (soph.), Angelena Donovan (soph.), Kaylee Hysock (soph.)
- Outlook: The Blue Devils return four starters and have solid talent among the younger players. They will be small, but quick. A tough schedule awaits, but the Devils should be improved over last season, competitive within the division and a solid District 11 playoff qualifier.
- Head coach: Brian Billig (1st season)
- Last season: 18-9, 8-5 D-III. District 2/11 Class A Subregional runner-up, District 11 Class A champion, PIAA Class A quarterfinalist (lost to Lourdes)
- Returnees: Grace Miller (jr.), Ashley James (jr.), Taylor Cichon (soph.), Gianna Lowman (soph.)
- Newcomers: Christel Kislan (fr.), Emma Kane (fr.), Madison Von Frisch (fr.), Angelina Fewins (fr.), Corra Chincola (sr.), Danielle Gordon (fr.), Isabella Maiello (fr.), Ally Bloom (jr.)
- Outlook: Billig takes over for Kevin Kringe as the Wreckers head coach. He inherits a team that lost all five starters, including three double-digit scorers, to graduation. A very young team will need to mature quickly. The Wreckers will likely be chasing the rest of the division.
Berks League Section II
- Head coach: Tom Moll (2nd season)
- Last season: 8-14, 3-7 Berks II
- Returnees: Julie Harbonic (sr.), Riley Adam (jr.), Nina Klahr (jr.), Haley Gravish (jr.), Lauren Sterner (soph.), Kyra Reimert (soph.)
- Newcomers: None provided.
- Outlook: Hawks have the talent and experience to record double-digit wins this season in a division in which Berks Catholic is expected to set the standard. Harbonic, a Berks Division II all-star selection last season, has size and reach and should be a go-to scorer. A District 3 playoff berth is a legitimate goal.
- Head coach: Rich Hoffman (9th season)
- Last season: 13-9, 9-7 TVL
- Returnees: Olivia Halterman (sr.), Taylor Conrad (sr.), Eileen Nestor (jr.), Bryonna Cather (jr.)
- Newcomers: Sam Bowman (jr.), Kara Rupp (fr.)
- Outlook: With four returning starters, the Trojans have solid leadership and experience. Nester runs the show at the point and provides solid numbers in all categories. Cather is a 3-point ace. Halterman and Conrad are both experienced veterans. Trojans have earned the role of favorite in the TVL East.