By MIKE MEILER
Niagara Gazette —
Things are looking up for the Niagara Catholic girls basketball team.
The Patriots, who finished third of four teams in the Monsignor Martin Athletic Association South Division last year, boast an early 3-2 record. They won the Park Tournament as a late entry, beating Park and Buffalo Seminary in the tourney, both teams they'd lost to last season.
All this, and there's still room for improvement on a team that has only two seniors.
"The biggest thing I've noticed this year is that this is a very teachable group," coach Larry Puzan said. "They learn quickly. They have the ability to grasp basketball.
"I've had smart kids, but that doesn't make you smart when it comes to basketball. These kids are athletes and they know the game. We're going to make freshman mistakes — that comes with a young team — but they're learning as they see things."
Leading the way for the Patriots will be senior returnee Danielle DeVole, a 6-foot center. She's been on the team for four years, and Puzan said she'll play a crucial leadership role, as well as serving as the team's top scoring option.
"She's done a nice job of stepping into (a leadership role)," Puzan said. "You can really tell in her maturity and growth. She can score, too. We've had nice scoring balance this year so far, but she's definitely one of the focal points for us offensively and defensively."
Joining DeVole in the starting lineup will be junior forwards Christina Schulte and Marissa Ruffolo, and a set of twins at the guard spots in freshmen Marina and Marissa Campbell.
The Patriots will go six-deep on the bench, led by sophomore transfers Jerastaysia Briggs (Niagara Falls) and Lakiya Beswick (Niagara-Wheatfield).
"They're new to the program, but they have a little bit more basketball sense and some athletic ability," Puzan said.
Also getting minutes will be juniors Jessica Chandler, Aleah McClain and Kendra Agee, as well as senior Madeline Burns.
Puzan said his team lacks size outside of DeVole and will prefer to push the pace when possible. DeVole provides a legitimate scoring option, but so far, the Patriots have turned to a balanced attack, with their highest scorer finishing with just over 10 points in their wins this year.
The team will pride itself on its defense, though, especially if Puzan has his way.
"As has always been my philosophy, you have to play defense, because the less the other team scores, the less you have to score to win," he said. "We've been going with a 2-3 zone to make other teams beat us by shooting, but we can get out and pressure if we need to."
The majority of Niagara Catholic's league games take place in January, but the Patriots will face Christian Central Academy on Tuesday in a game that had to be rescheduled.
"We'll be competitive with the other schools in the South," Puzan said, "but it's a process. Starting two freshmen will take its toll with turnovers, but we're learning. As opposed to the season we came off last year, it's a step in the right direction.Follow high school sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.