It’s all right there for everyone to see in the Sara Lojewski’s hard and fast dribble.
It’s evident in Nikki Wren’s relentless hustle around the hoop.
It’s as clear as the looks Maddie Kelley keeps finding as she piles up points.
There’s something much different about this year’s Dallas girls basketball team.
“Our kids are playing with such confidence,” Dallas coach Kelly Johnson said. “I think that’s the big difference between this year and last year.”
The Mountaineers have good reason for such self-belief.
They only lost once through a promising preseason, then opened their Wyoming Valley Conference schedule by coming back to beat defending Division 1 champion Hazleton Area in the final minutes.
“Oh, that definitely set us off,” Kelley said. “We really realize we have something special.”
Aside from the past trend which shows Dallas pretty much never beats Hazleton Area, the Cougars were the hot pick in the preseason to defend their conference crown.
“I think they felt really good about themselves,” Johnson said. “We know Hazleton’s ranked number one and is a conference favorite.”
The Mountaineers? They were supposed to be in the middle of the pack again, coming off a year where they finished sixth among the eight teams in Division 1 with a 4-10 conference record.
They won their first three games in this season’s first week before suffering their first regular-season loss against Crestwood on Monday. Now they’re 3-1 and sitting right in the mix of teams fighting for the top spot in Division 1.
Sure, it’s still early.
But it would be a mistake to discount this quick run of success as little more than a magical hot streak for Dallas. The Mountaineers are convinced they are in the title hunt for the long haul.
“I really do think so,” Kelley said. “Because we had such a great preseason and then the way we came out the first week of conference play.”
They don’t destroy teams.
In fact, every game seems to be a struggle for Dallas, whether it is against a traditional conference power like Hazleton Area or a building program like Tunkhannock.
“Our conference is brutal,” Johnson said. “Our division is so brutal. We seem like we’re going to a nail-biter every game.”
The Mountaineers were down six points against Hazleton Area with six minutes to play and came back to pull off a 59-56 victory. Then Dallas built a 14-point lead against Tunkhannock and wound up clinging to a 64-60 win at the end.
“We barely escaped that game with a win,” Johnson said. “You know what? Our division is so competitive.”
After that, the Mountaineers went down to Berwick on Friday and found themselves down by 10 points in the third quarter and trailing by seven with less than 10 minutes to play. Dallas came back and won 49-42.
“”Because we’re just so confident,” Kelley said. “Nobody doubts each other, we all have faith in ourselves.”
All this self-certainty was actually molded by a season of failure.
Johnson believes Dallas’ steely resolve was built from getting rattled around during a building season a year ago. Most of the Mountaineers returned from that year of trial that tested the team’s will, and worked relentlessly through the offseason and preseason to change their fate.
And they’re still pretty young. The Mountaineers carry just two seniors on their roster — starters Wren and Courtney Hoats.
But they all spend their time on the court playing with an urgency and desire that makes it appear as if they’re playing their last game. That’s why the Mountaineers made a fast move into first place.
“They don’t back down,” Johnson said. “They don’t give up. They don’t bend easily, and they’re hard to break. They trust their teammates and trust the game plan going into games. They’re united – to the coaches and to each other.
“I just have a lot of pride in my players.”
Revamping the Royals
The game of musical chairs Holy Redeemer has spent the first week playing with its starting lineup may not be ending soon.
Through the season’s first week, Sam Rajza was inserted into the starting lineup, then Meghan Corridoni — one of the stars of last season’s state semifinal run — spent Saturday’s non-conference victory over Marian Catholic in a reserve role.
The starting lineup shuffle isn’t likely to stop after Redeemer was held scoreless in the first quarter of that 47-35 victory over Marian Catholic. It was the first time Royals coach Chris Parker’s team was held pointless through a period in his five years at the helm.
“Coach changes the lineup every day,” Redeemer center Rebecca Prociak said, “because he doesn’t know what he’s going to get from any of our starters.”
The start to the season has been a curious one for Redeemer.
They seem to be looking for a new leader and have lost two of their first six games, including Monday’s 41-36 loss in a WVC opener at home against Nanticoke Area.
“That’s unfamiliar territory for us,” Parker said.
The good news for Redeemer came right after Saturday’s scoreless opening period.
The Royals responded to that indignity with a relentless defensive pressure out of their past, and Corridoni came off the bench to team with Prociak in scoring 35 of the team’s 47 points Saturday. Then Redeemer went out and hammered Northwest on Monday to gain a share of first place in Division 3 at 2-1.
“We don’t feel like we’ve clicked yet,” Prociak said.
Bursting their bubbles
After opening week of conference play, Dallas, Lake-Lehman and Northwest all stood in first place unbeaten in their respective divisions.
Then came the start of the second week, when all of them stumbled.
Nobody expected those three to fight for a league title this year, but all of them seem determined to change some minds.
Northwest is the only team that remained in first place after the first day of the second week of league play — now tied with Holy Redeemer at 2-1 at the top of Division 3 after being rocked by the Royals on Monday. But there’s a lot of promise for the Rangers, with Brenna Babcock, Liz Gurzynski and Hannah Wisniewski all averaging more than 12 points per game in a balanced offensive system.
Northwest coach Amy Kachinko was pretty excited for the start of the season, and it’s easy to see why. Wisniewski, Babcock and her sister Trista Babcock are all freshmen who have made an immediate impact on the program and are blending well with seniors Gurzynski, Brooke Mendegro and Jill Kondrosky.
Dallas may have fallen from first place in Division 1 with its loss to Crestwood, the but Mountaineers are determined to make sure they don’t fall off the map. Thursday night, they have a solid chance to equal their league win total of a year ago.
And in Division 2, Lake-Lehman looks as if it’s starting to figure things out.
The Black Knights, who graduated the school’s all-time leading scorer along with tremendous leadership when Cayle Spencer went off to King’s College, took some lumps in their non-conference games. But they started 2-0 before being blitzed by Nanticoke Area in a battle of division unbeatens Monday, and head coach Charlie Lavan has been encouraged by the Black Knights’ progress.
Lehman is finding promise in the hustle and scoring touch of Molly Storz —who is also turning into one of the team’s finest rebounders — and the outside shooting ability of Julia Eneboe.
Dallas, Northwest and Lehman will find out soon enough if those strong starts are sustainable, or were just a sudden surprise.
Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski