Girls Varsity Basketball · Rangers reload for another run at WRC title

Destiny Leo

North graduated three starters from the squad that went 14-0 in the Western Reserve Conference last year.

But, the Rangers have plenty of talent to make another run at the league title and more.

“We are excited to get started and we had a lot of good players and leaders graduate last year, so there are some question marks as far as who is going to step in and take on leadership roles on and off the court,” North coach Paul Force said. “I do feel we have some nice pieces to build around. We are certainly tasked to follow in the footsteps of a remarkable season on and off the court last season, but we are embracing the opportunity to do so.”

Force, who is 158-70 in his 11th year at North and 173-77 overall, returns two starters and two others with varsity experience this season as they look to build off the momentum of last year’s 21-4 campaign.

It won’t be easy as the Rangers are tasked with replacing Samantha Pirosko, a two-time All-Ohioan as well as the WRC and Ohio Varsity Player of the Year. North also must replace tenacious rebounder Anaunda Lyons and two defensive stoppers in Val Arnold and Caitlin Stuart.

“We lost the all-time leading scorer in North’s history in Samantha Pirosko to graduation, so you don’t replace a player like that, you just adapt your offensive system to best fit the kids that you do have,” Force said. “Sam and Anaunda also led the charge on the boards for us last year so we will be looking for some girls to step in and control the boards on both ends as well as some girls to step into the defensive ‘stopper’ role previously filled by Val and Stu.”

The good news for Force and the Rangers is Destiny Leo returns after an outstanding sophomore season.

Leo, a second-team All-Ohioan and WRC performer and a finalist for the News-Herald and Ohio Varsity Player of the Year awards, averaged 19.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.4 steals per and shot 35-percent from behind the arc and 76-percent at the free throw line.

“Destiny is, in my opinion, one of the premier offensive players in the area,” Force said. “She can score the ball in a variety of ways and has strong ball handling and passing skills to go with a high basketball IQ. This combination makes her scary on the offensive end and a difficult matchup for most teams. She has gotten her body ready for her junior season and worked hard to add to her game and improve herself on the defensive end. We are fortunate to have her and looking forward to seeing how year number three unfolds for her.”

Senior point guard Taylor Valaitis also returns to the starting lineup.

She averaged 5.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per contest last year and shot 34-percent from behind the arc.

“Taylor is poised to have a solid senior season,” Force said. “She does a lot of things well and can impact the game in a variety of ways. She is one of our best two-way players in that she can defend at a high level, rebound, take care of the ball, score and find open teammates. I know she’s worked hard for this season and I’m excited to see what she does with her opportunities.”

Senior Maddy Hamilton also returns with varsity experience.

The wing averaged 2.0 points per game and hits on 39-percent of his shots from behind the arc.

“Maddy is a solid two-way player for us who can knock down the open three,” Force said. “Her defensive tenacity and competitiveness make her a crucial part of what we are trying to do this year. She has a high basketball IQ and makes great decisions with the basketball.”

Sophomore Avril Drew is expected to fit into the varsity lineup in the post and at point guard.

“Avril plays a unique combination for us as she gets time in the post and also backs up Taylor at the point guard position,” Force said. “This speaks to her versatility and ability to impact the game from multiple spots. She’s got good ball handling skills and is learning to take care of the ball and maximize scoring opportunities without forcing the issue on offense. As she learns the system and starts to continue to play hard but let the game come to her, I think she will be someone who can have a nice sophomore season and a very impressive three years at the varsity level.”

The Rangers got a big boost when Abby Carter’s family moved into the district.

Carter won the Ohio Varsity Freshman of the Year award after averaging 13.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.6 steals per game for Geneva last winter.

The second team All-Chagrin Valley Conference performer is projected to start at wing for the Rangers.

“Abby brings a lot to the table on both sides of the ball for us and I feel she has a very high ceiling as far as her potential,” Force said. “Her best basketball is ahead of her and we are excited to help her learn the system and develop and refine her skills she is ready to have a great first year at North and in the WRC.”

Senior Kenzie Hammond is expected to provide depth at the post.

“Kenz is one of our best leaders and she embodies what it is to be a Lady Ranger,” Force said. “She’s a great person, great student and a hard-working athlete who places the team ahead of herself. She should see time in the post and we trust her knowledge of the system and basketball IQ to provide meaningful minutes.”

Juniors Olivia Oostdyk, Carli Wilson and Ledia Vajusi also are expected to contribute this winter.

Oostdyk is a legitimate 6-footer, providing much-needed size and strength in the paint while Wilson is dangerous from behind the arc and an aggressive defender and rebounder. Vajusi has the length and athleticism needed to play out on the wing and she’s also accurate from behind the 3-point line.

Sophomore Hailie Wilson and freshman Cece Hamilton will see a fair share of varsity minutes.

Wilson, a post, should compete for every rebound in her vicinity and Hamilton will provide the Rangers with some depth at the point guard and wing positions.

The Rangers enter the season with the goal of repeating as the WRC champions and also hope to win the district title.

That’s a tall order considering the quality of teams in the league and district but the Rangers have the pieces in place to make it happen.

“I think Destiny Leo is one of the premier scorers in the area and we have a number of other girls who can take advantage of offensive opportunities when they present themselves. Our guard play and ball handling and passing should be a strength as well,” Force said. “We have some questions marks as far as who will fill what role on and off the court, so we are just focused on being great one day at a time and trusting that that will take us to wherever we are supposed to go.”

North’s keys to success start with rebounding and protecting the basketball.