Cocalico looks to back up label as section favorite

By on December 11, 2013

A year ago, a young Cocalico team came of age before our eyes.

The Lady Eagles matured as the season went on before narrowly missed out on a Section Two championship, falling just short to Ephrata in that memorable one-game playoff for the title.

Cocalico did advance to both the L-L League and District Three playoffs, going 18-7 in the process, and enters this season as the odds-on favorite to cut down the nets in late February.

A lot has to happen between now and then, but the Lady Eagles are off to a great start. This past weekend, they captured a pair of runaway victories en route to the Hamburg Tourney title, and Monday night improved to 3-0 with their third lopsided victory of the year at Manheim Central.

Cocalico does need to replace three heady seniors in Kristen Boyer, Taylor Esterly and Rebecca Grube from a year ago. However, they do return one of the best players in the L-L League in 5-10 senior Marissa Gingrich, who averaged 14.5 points a game as a junior, as well as a slew of talented underclassmen led by returning starters 5-10 sophomore Emily White and 5-2 junior guard Natalie Sukanick, as well as 5-11 sophomore big girl Megan Gingrich, the younger sister of Marissa.

This past Monday, Ephrata Review Sports Editor Todd Ruth caught up with Coach Tony DiMatteo, who is beginning his third year, to discuss the upcoming season.

The following is a transcript of that conversation:

Todd Ruth: Your team got off to a great start this weekend, winning the Hamburg Tournament. What were impressions of your team in the first two games?

Tony DiMatteo: I thought we played OK. We did some good things but we also have some correctable mistakes. I really liked the chemistry. I thought the kids played well together, offensively and on the defensive end. Like I said we do have some things we need to correct, some positioning and some communication, but it was nice. We played a lot of people. We got some of the younger players in and they stepped up. I was pleased with that. Both teams that we played weren’t tall but they were aggressive, and I thought we held our own with that. I was definitely pleased for the most part.

TR: Looking back to last year, your team got to the brink, and had some real big playoff games. How do you think that is going to carry over into this season?

TD: The three playoff games we had was just excellent for experience. We needed that because we had a lot of young girls who had never been on that stage before. We played those Ephrata games, we had a ton of people here at our place and then we played that playoff game in front of like 2,000 people, which for any girls game is amazing. And our girls were a little shaken by it. It was obvious, but I thought by the time we got to the leagues and Districts, I thought our girls started getting a little more comfortable with it, and we hope that will carry over this year. I’ve noticed a change…they are a little bit more confident. They understand what it takes now, but I’m curious to see…we still got to get over the hump.

TR: You’ve lost a couple key players to graduation but have a number of nice pieces back. How are you going to overcome the losses of the girls you did lose?

TD: Well, we have a year of experience. We got a couple of sophomores in Megan and Emily who played a heck of a lot as freshmen, and I think this year you are going to see a little bit of a difference in them. They are definitely going to step up. It’s hard. Kristen Boyer was a rebounder and scorer for us, and Taylor Esterly was sort of like a floor general, and Rebecca (Grube) was offense. She would come in and shoot. We need to replace that, but we’ve got a couple freshmen in Lyndsay Engle and Emily Fassnacht who played really well this weekend. And Jasa Lorah and Danielle Witmer, some of the other sophomores, are starting to really step it up too. I just think that year of experience is going to be valuable, but you still got to go out and play.

TR: Some of those names you were talking about, eventhough they are young, have varsity experience on the soccer field or whatever. That’s got to help too.

TD: Yeah, Emily and Lindsay both played on our soccer team, and Jasa too. You are right. It does carry over from one sport to the next so with the combination of what they did in basketball as freshmen and what they had in soccer this fall definitely can’t hurt.

TR: When people look at your team, obviously the first person that jumps out is Marissa Gingrich. She’s been a standout for three years now. What kind of expectations do you have for her this year?

TD: I just want her to continue doing what she’s doing. She’s a leader, on and off the court. She motivates everyone on the team. She pushes herself tremendously hard, and I think that is carrying over with all of the young players we have. It’s important that they see what it takes. I’ve seen it with Emily White and I’ve seen it with Natalie (Sukanick) and Megan (Gingrich)…they are picking up the traits that Marissa has and are doing the same thing. I like that because then it sort of feeds itself. It’s not something the coaches can foster…the players need to do that. And Marissa has been a key part of that. I just want her to continue doing what she does. She’s a great kid.

TR: Looking at your personnel, in the backcourt obviously you have a lot of experience where you need it. Tell me a little about those girls and their roles.

TD: The way I’m looking at it we sort of have a three-guard rotation right now with Emily, Marissa and Natalie. They all can handle the ball so we are sort of rotating them around, depending on match-ups. It’s a nice problem to have. When we have ball handlers, we don’t have to depend on a single person to break a press, and they play very well together. They look for each other…we just needed some time for them to play together because you can’t teach that, that chemistry piece I’m talking about, knowing your teammates and where they are going to be…I think we are developing that pretty quickly this year. They are definitely looking for each other, and are communicating well on offense and on defense. That’s the other thing. Last year at times we had three or maybe four people working well together and maybe one or two that were not. Now we got five people clicking out there, and I think it shows.

TR: Looking at Emily, she is an interesting player because she creates such a match-up problem with her size and the way she can handle the ball. What are your thoughts on her game as a whole?

TD: She can play point guard or center. She can post and she can beat you off the dribble. It’s very interesting, and a nice problem to have. She plays a lot of ball. She plays AAU ball, and plays with a lot of players throughout the league, and even in the state. Basketball is her sport, and I think this year she is just coming in a little more confident. She was a freshman last year, and I kept telling her, “you are a freshman. You are playing varsity.” I told her to just enjoy it, and chalk up last year to just being a freshman. “This year, you are starting fresh and now you are a veteran,” and she’s playing like it. In our game against Tri-Valley, she was just phenomenal. She was hitting from the outside, she was driving…she makes players better around her, and that is the mark of a good player. It’s not what you necessarily can do, it’s how you make your teammates better.

TR: Looking at the front court, who do you expect to make an impact there?

TD: Megan Gingrich. She’s a little undersized…she’s not a six footer, but she’s athletic, she gets up and down the court, and she works really hard. She’s got her sister’s work-ethic, and in the off-season she worked hard on her low post moves, her defense, her footwork, and we are expecting her to be our inside presence this year. Along with Emily, we’ll get to match those two up. But I’m looking for her to be a leader on defense, she’s vocal, she’s going to be outfront a lot for us. Again, she’s just a sophomore but got a ton of experience last year as a freshman. I’m looking for her to be a little bit more comfortable this year as well.

TR: What other players are you looking to contribute there?

TD: Carly Showalter has stepped up. She doesn’t have the size but plays with that mentality…she’s always on the floor, she’s banging and bruising, but she has really stepped up her ability to slash and penetrate. We are looking for her to be a factor on the offensive end and defensively, being a leader. She is one of our captains. She is pretty vocal, on and off the court. And then I have a bunch of younger players who don’t have much size, but Lyndsay Engle will be playing inside, as will Danielle Witmer. We are not a tall team.

TR: Are there any other kids who might see some time?

TD: Jasa Lorah is definitely going to see some action. She’s going to be able to spell Natalie, and at times I’ll play both of them because they both pressure the ball well. And then we have Lauren Stricker, who is our other captain. She’s going to be the first person off the bench because she can play anywhere. She’s not big but she’s played center, forward and guard over the last couple of years. She was forced to handle the ball on JV which is a blessing, because now she actually can. She’ll be very valuable for us.

TR: Style-wise, what are we going to see when we watch Cocalico?

TD: We are going to look to push the ball down the court and get our first good shot. If it’s not there, then we are going to work our offense and try to get the shot we want in every possession. And on defense, we are going to look to pressure. We are going to try to get up in people’s faces and create some turnovers.

TR: Looking at your squad, what do you view as your team’s strengths this year?

TD: Definitely chemistry. The kids really like each other. In the off-season they worked really hard together and had a bunch of team activities, and in the fall they did as well. They did movie night, sleepover kinds of things…They just really enjoy being together, and it’s visible on the court. You can see how much they really like each other. I think we are going to be a defensive-minded team. And like I said, we are going to look to push the ball up the court, and try to get some four-on-threes and three-on-twos.

TR: I know you said you can work on some things. What do you see as places where you need to improve?

TD: I still think, depending on who is in the game, that our communication needs to get better. Playing 10 people is nice, but you never know who is going to be in there, and you never know what position you are going to be in, so the girls still need to learn multiple spots. And you need five people in there communicating and clicking so the rotations are there. On the defensive end we still need to work on our communication and understanding our roles. Offensively, same thing but not so much because I think the girls are a little more familiar with that but their roles are still panning out. It’s the defense where we still need to look to step up.

TR: Like I said before, you guys were right there last year. Coming off that season and the talent you do have coming back, what are your goals heading into this year?

TD: We are going to take it one game at a time. Obviously, the section is a team goal. It was last year and Ephrata beat us. That was the bottom line. I tell the girls, “we are going to compete every day. We are going to show up and if we lose it is because the other teams beat us.” Ephrata beat us last year. Now we are right back at it with the same expectations. We obviously want to win every game we participate in but we want to try to get that section championship. After that, it’s dependent on the numbers as far as leagues and rankings and Districts are concerned, and things like that. It’s early, and the league is still sort of settling in and you never know what injuries are going to occur…There is a lot of time between now and the end of the year.

TR: As far as the section is concerned, obviously you guys are one of the picks, but what other teams do you feel can contend?

TD: Lebanon has to be there because they have everybody back. They’ve got nice guards, and they have a little bit of size now, and they have three years of working together. They know each other. And still, Ephrata is going to be there. I’ve seen them play, they are aggressive and Coach Garman has them playing that style we just talked about. They are going to be in your face, and they are basically going to make you beat them. I look for them to be there, and as far as the other teams in our section, you have a Fairbanks at E-town, CV is much improved, and Solanco is a difficult team because they’ve been there over the years. You know, it’s still open and I think very dependent on who stays healthy. I don’t think teams have a lot of depth so if you can stay healthy, I think you’ll be there. If you get some injuries, it could hurt.

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