Multiple Teams · Lady Bears are as loaded as ever

Girls basketball squad has lofty expectations

 The 2014-15 North Royalton girls basketball team returns four starters and most of the top rotation players from last season.  

Posted: Thursday, December 4, 2014 3:00 am By TODD STUMPF The Post sports editor

There are seasons teams look forward to more than others. North Royalton’s girls basketball season is embarking on one of those seasons.

The Bears are coming off a very nice season that saw them go 22-3 overall, 10-0 in the Northeast Ohio Conference River Division. Were the league not folding, chances are North Royalton would have bumped up into the more competitive Valley Division.

The only thing the Bears didn’t do last year was go on an extended tournament run. For the second year in a row North Royalton lost in a district final. The Bears fell 57-46 to Magnificat, a year after losing to then-Midpark.

“As a team, we have high expectations,” Bears coach Steffani Cicerchi said. “Their goal is to win the conference again and make it further than we have the last two years in the tournament. We’ve lost the last two years in the district final and our goal is definitely to advance.”

The reason hopes are so high is four starters and most of the top rotation players return from a year ago. Only Abby Miduri, who averaged 11 points a game last season, graduated among the top 10 or so contributors.

Among the rest of the returning roster, senior Sami Minor elected not to return after an injury during volleyball season. Cicerchi said Minor was focused on softball and understood the player’s health concerns.

The rest of the Bears, though, are in place. With Senior guard Alison Smolinski, senior post Rachel Flis, junior guard Julianne Lebo, and McKenzie Matthews, North Royalton returns one of the best nuclei in northeast Ohio. Newcomer Gabby White will fill the spot vacated by Miduri.

White, a 5-foot-6 guard, already made her presence known, scoring 18 points in the Bears’ season-opening win over Nordonia.

“She’s very, very athletic,” Cicerchi said. “She sees the floor well. She’s aggressive on the floor. She plays like a bigger kid. She can drive aggressively. I don’t think teams know how to play her yet.”

Teams think they know how to play Smolinski, but the Youngstown State recruit, an All-Ohio special mention recipient a year ago, didn’t average 15 points last season by not knowing how to get around junk defenses from time to time.

“She’s starting to be able to play with teams pressuring her,” Cicerchi said. “That was her biggest transition. She understands it might not be her having to score all the time.”

Cicerchi said Flis has also developed in the offseason somewhat, working with an individual coach and going from just a tall post player to one who can navigate the paint a bit more. The coach is looking for her senior center to create more offense for herself, via improved footwork and a better understanding of the game.

Sophomore guard Lexi Chuppa will be the Bears’ sixth woman, with sophomore post Amy Tyma and junior wing Tori Lineweaver rounding out the primary contributors.

Stuck in the River Division of the NOC, North Royalton upgraded its non-league schedule for this season. On the docket now are Solon, Stow and Mentor from the NOC Valley, Walsh Jesuit, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, Westlake and Berea-Midpark, all of which have been elite programs in recent years. In the River, Medina and Brunswick figure to pose the biggest challenges.

“That was done purposefully,” Cicerchi said. “My philosophy is very much that you’ve got to do whatever it takes to get ready for a tournament. Your goal is to play into mid-March. That’s everybody’s goal.”