For the Cooperstown girls basketball team, defending its Section Three Class C championship was always going to be a tough task, but it seems to be getting harder as the season begins.
For CCS, replacing graduates Sumer Murdock and Nicole Cring was never going to be possible. Cring’s defensive intensity and rebounding and Murdock’s clutch shooting and rebounding propelled the team to the section title and almost to the state finals. As a result both were named to the Class C All State team, and Murdock was named the Center State Conference Division III player of the year.
If possible, their leadership was even more important than their stats for Cooperstown.
So it was always going to be tough to defend the title this year after losing those two players. In addition, the team lost forward Alannah Haggerty, an intense player and three-sport star who is now playing college soccer at Wilkes University. But coach Mike Niles has a number of good guards to fill in for Murdock and on paper had good athletes to try to replace Cring and Haggerty inside.
Then Cooperstown lost Caitlin Briggs to a rotary exchange and Ellen Vibbard to a torn ACL. While neither played a huge role on last year’s team, both are tall girls, and Vibbard, in particular, had strong moments on the court last season and even better ones in soccer and softball in 2013.
That leaves Niles with a limited bench inside. Senior center Lucy Ford and sophomores Mallory Arthurs and Ciara McGoldrick will have to step up for Cooperstown to have any chance of a post-season run.
It isn’t hopeless. Ford, after all, is a state champion in the high jump, and Niles said he is very happy with the potential of Arthurs and McGoldrick. But the Hawkeyes started the season 2-2 before beating Herkimer on Monday, and Niles has been experimenting with a four-guard line up.
“I’ve got to get used to coaching four guards,” he said. “I think that could be one of our strengths.”
That may be an understatement. Point guard Liz Millea will continue to be a playmaker for Cooperstown, and most likely its leading scorer this season. As a freshman, Millea stepped in as a starter at the beginning of the season; by the end of it, she was named the Section Three Class C tournament MVP.
Barring injuries, she will be the face of Cooperstown girls basketball for the next three years. But she will have to adjust to being the leading scorer and having teams key on her rather than Murdock or Cring.
Fortunately for her and Niles, Cooperstown’s strength this season is guards. Seniors Maggie Hall and S.J. Morosko are both good athletes and good shooters with the ability to make opposing defenses pay if they key on Millea. Junior Christina Noto and sophomore Jennifer Flynn were both key players on a junior varsity squad that went undefeated last season and were also starters on the varsity softball squad that made it to the section finals.
So for Cooperstown the question isn’t about talent. It is about leadership, about chemistry and about replacing irreplaceable players while adjusting to a system that takes advantage of the team’s strengths.
“The other night I had four guards out there with Mallory and I thought it went pretty well,” Niles said. “Mallory has been great as far as a forward/center. We can have two bigs out there, but Mallory is just a 5-foot-4 big.”
Niles said that defense and perimeter shooting will be strength for the team, but, “we are going to have to make a priority out of rebounding.”
It will be a process for Cooperstown. “It could get tricky until we get used to it,” Niles said.
A change to Division II will make it harder. Cooperstown will now compete in division against Little Falls, Herkimer, Dolgeville, West Canada Valley and Frankfort-Schuyler. Little Falls and Herkimer both lost to CCS in the section tournament last season and each team returns most of its squad.
Little Falls, which lost to Cooperstown in the C-1 finals, may be the team to beat in the section and not just the division. It has a huge senior class back this season, led by senior center Gen Schoff, who is a two-time all-state selection in Class C. The Mounties won the first meeting with the Hawkeyes 70-55 on Dec. 11 in Little Falls. Schoff had a career-high 31 points in the game. The rematch is Jan. 17 in Cooperstown.
Cooperstown, which also lost to Class B Sherburne-Earlville and beat Central Valley and West Canada to start the season, won at Herkimer, 63-43, Monday with Millea scoring 29 points.
Hall contributed 16 points and 10 rebounds for Cooperstown, which received nine points from Lucy Ford.
Hannah DeLude had 14 points for Herkimer.
Cooperstown (3-2, 2-1) will host Frankfort-Schuyler on Thursday.