Girls basketball: Defending state champion Alter facing daunting schedule

From the first day of the offseason, there’s been no time for the Alter girls basketball team to rest on the Division II state championship they won in March at UD Arena. There’s no time to think about what repeating would mean. There’s only time to think about the next opponent.

Chris Hart made sure of that.

Hart, in her 29th year on the Alter bench and 24th year coaching alongside Kendall Peck, didn’t have to ask her athletic director for a difficult schedule. She’s the AD, so it was her job to find good teams to play,

“We’re playing a schedule and a half,” she said. “Our nonleague schedule is just crazy, and then you look at our league and it’s very strong as usual. So we’ll be challenged every night out.”

Of course, the Knights return many key players, including leading scorers and rebounders Riley Smith and Maddie Moody, from last year’s 28-1 team. They marched through February and March to the program’s fifth state championship and fourth since 2015. They open the season Tuesday at home against Chaminade Julienne on 14-game winning streak.

“That was a great achievement, and one that we were thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to even play in that game,” Hart said. “But that’s behind us now. We’re on to this year. I think they understand what’s in front of us.”

What’s in front is a series of events with other high-level teams and the usual rigor of the Greater Catholic Co-ed League. The Knights lost three starters, but there is plenty of talent returning, including a pair of freshmen who will add depth. And looking even farther ahead, which Hart and Peck aren’t doing and certainly aren’t talking about with their team, there’s only one senior this season.

The discussion of important players begins with Smith and Moody. Smith, a 6-foot-2 junior, averaged 14 points and 5.1 rebounds last year.

“Her shot has gotten even quicker and smoother, and her range has increased just a little bit,” Hart said. “She made her biggest improvement last year during the season at the defensive end of the floor, and she also improved her rebounding. Those were two important factors for us as we went through the tournament.”

Moody is a 6-1 sophomore post player who averaged 11.9 points and 5.2 rebounds.

“Maddie’s improved her ball handling so she’s helping handle the ball a little bit for us,” Hart said. “And her rebounding is as strong as ever. She’s also shooting deep consistently and she can get it to the basket under control. She’s kind of a tough guard.”

The only senior is 6-1 Mehkia Shipp. She’s almost like a new addition. Because of transfer rules, Shipp played in only the first 11 games last year after coming over from Centerville. She averaged 6.5 points and 4.7 rebounds and is a physical presence inside. Now she’s available for the entire season.

“She was a big contributor,” Hart said. “She still did some really good things for us throughout the rest of the season with her work ethic in practice every day and her support of her teammates, her knowledge of the scouting report. All those things were invaluable to us.”

Primary ball-handling duties belong to 6-foot junior Elena Thompson and 5-8 junior Hannah Mayse. They played important roles off the bench last year.

“They’re both excellent on-ball defenders, and they both had very good offseasons in AAU, and then with us in June,” Hart said.

Adia Strauser, a 5-8 junior, played a versatile role off the bench last year and is back in that role again. Last year the Knights were 10 deep from the start. This year Hart says that number is more like eight to start with room to grow.

“At least early, we’re not going to be able to come at you in waves the way that we came at you at the end of the year defensively,” Hart said. “So we’ll pick and choose when we’re going to go get people full court because we don’t want to wear out our kids right away. But we will turn up the pressure in other ways defensively as we try to create offense out of our defense as we normally try to do.”

Hart and Peck still enjoy the long grind of basketball season. They understand the challenge of bringing a group of experienced and inexperienced players together to get them ready for a season in which they will be the biggest game on most of their opponents’ schedules.

“It’s the kids,” Hart said. “It’s an opportunity to work with them and be around them and hopefully have a little bit of an effect on them. Competition is always kind of exciting to try and prepare and game plan for a particular opponent. And then hopefully watch that come to fruition.”

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