Over the past four years, North’s Destiny Leo was among the top players in Northeast Ohio and beyond.
Leo graduated last spring, leaving the Rangers with a big hole in their lineup, but 13th-year head coach Paul Force is confident his squad will rally together to carry on the legacy of success the program has enjoyed over the years.
“I think dealing with the uncertainty of the season is a challenge that all teams will have to deal with, but as far as on the court, we are moving on after graduating one of the best players in the area and I’m sure there will be a lot of team’s excited about playing us without Destiny, but we are just as excited to prove that Eastlake North girls’ basketball is, and always has been, bigger than one player,” Force said. “There have been a lot of great players walk out the door over the last 12 years or so and we’ve managed to show up and continue to battle.”
Force, who collected his 200th win last season and enters the 2020-21 campaign with a career mark of 221-81, has reason to be optimistic.
Despite graduating Leo and several other seniors, the Rangers return three starters from last year’s team that finished 23-4 overall, 14-0 in the Western Reserve Conference and won a second straight district championship.
The Rangers also have the motivation to prove they’re still among the area’s best teams.
“It’s exciting for me and the girls to play and prep with something to prove to people,” Force said. “I am excited to see how we come together as a unit. We bring back some experience and a good mixture of athleticism that should make us more versatile on both ends of the court.”
Throughout his tenure at North, Force has had the luxury of coaching some of the area’s top talent including Lindsey Englebrecht, Samantha Pirosko and Leo, and this year is no different.
Senior Abby Carter, a 5-foot-10 wing, returns for her third season in the program.
Carter, a Division I Akron University signee, averaged 12.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game last year on the way to earning All-WRC and honorable mention All-Ohio honors.
“Abby is a great two-way player and has certainly had big-game experience over the years,” Force said. “Her ability to change the game on the offensive and defensive end make her unique and her combination of length and skill make her a difficult matchup for a lot of teams. I’m excited to see what she can do this season.”
Providing a complement to Carter’s game is Avril Drew, a 5-foot-7 senior who can play any position on the court.
Drew averaged 11.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists last season. She was named All-WRC and honorable mention all-district.
“Avril can do a little bit of everything, which makes her nice to have and difficult to handle for opposing coaches,” Force said. “She’s gotten better and stronger and I know she’s looking forward to the challenge of this season. We’ve moved her all over on offense and defense and this year will be no different. She is, by far, the most versatile kid that I’ve coached as far as being able to be productive all over the court on offense and defense. She certainly has room for improvement, and she knows that, but she’s going to do whatever she needs to to maximize her ability.”
Junior Cece Hamilton, a 5-foot-6 point guard, is North’s final returning starter. She scored 3.7 points with 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest last season. She earned honorable mention All-WRC honors.
“This is an exciting year full of opportunities for Cece,” Force said. “She has been putting in time and developing mentally and physically as a player and we feel good about where she is at. Her playing time and game experience last year should have her coming in confident and ready to take a step forward.”
Senior Hailie Wilson and junior Dori Siekaniec are expected to round out the starting lineup.
Wilson is a 5-foot-7 post who averaged 2.2 points and 5.1 rebounds off the bench last season.
“Hailie is a huge energy and hustle player for us,” Force said. “She creates so many more opportunities for us on both ends of the court. She’s another girl who played a lot of meaningful minutes last season but will be looking to take a stride forward this year. She’s improved her shooting and knowledge of the game to go with the knack for hustling and rebounding that she’s always had.”
Siekaniec is a 5-foot-5 guard with limited varsity experience.
“Dori can stretch the floor for us by hitting the open 3-pointer and is a scrappy defensive player,” Force said. “We are excited for her to get some major minutes and experience this year.”
Seniors Madison Vitello and Kailynn Kononow, junior Robbie Sevegen, sophomores Sydney Helm and Gabbi Mandato, and freshman Katie Bucy will provide the Rangers with depth.
Vitello, a 5-foot-7 wing, has 3-point ability and is a pesky defender. Kononow, a 5-foot-8 wing/post, is has a high basketball IQ, knows the Rangers’ systems well and is an outstanding leader and teammate.
Sevegen, a 5-foot-10 post, provides the Rangers with some size in the paint. She played a lot of JV ball last winter and will see her fair share of time this season.
Helm, a 5-foot-6 guard, is athletic and has a high motor. Mandato, a 5-foot-3 guard, will see spot duty while gaining valuable experience at the JV level.
Bucy, a 5-foot-6 point guard, already has made an impression on her coaches and will get her chance to prove her abilities at the varsity level.
North enters the season with a big target on its back and the Rangers are up for that challenge. But, Force and his players remain focused on what’s next and they aren’t looking too far ahead.
“We just want to keep learning and getting better every day,” Force said. “We don’t talk much about long-term goals; we just lock in on our next game and try to prep for every game like it’s the most important one on our schedule. The achievements are nice but we try to stay in the moment and focused on the relationships and journey as much as we can.”