After winning two consecutive Hudson County Tournament championships, the Lincoln High School girls’ basketball team is expected to keep the winning ways going.
That’s asking a lot, considering that the Lions hadn’t won a county title for 30 years prior to 2011.
But Lincoln’s program is definitely the elite organization in the county these days, an idea that does not get past veteran head coach Tommy Best.
“I can’t say it’s added pressure, but we certainly need to keep the expectations high,” said Best, who guided the Lions to a brilliant 28-2 record and a state ranking for the very first time. “After winning two championships, we want to keep the expectations high.”
It won’t be easy. The Lions lost two-time Hudson Reporter Player of the Year Breana Bey to graduation. Bey, who averaged 20 points and nine rebounds per game last year, is now playing at Monroe Junior College in New York.
The Lions also lost off-guard Chaniyah Swan to graduation, then had to deal with the loss of potential starting point guard Natalie Cortez to a season-ending ACL knee injury.
“She was playing basketball in the summer and tore the knee,” Best said. “She’s only a sophomore, so she’ll be back, but it’s a big loss now.”
So is everyone ready to feel sorry for Best and the Lions?
“We lost three-fifths of our starting rotation, so that’s a lot,” Best said. “I know it’s tough trying to find the right solutions. The motivation has been there for the other players to work hard and perhaps earn a starting slot. People think that we might have a little nick in our armor and that we’re not as strong as we used to be. But I think the girls are up to the challenge.”
One of the main reasons why the Lions have to be considered among the best in the county is the return of junior forward Kiante Johnson, who earned Hudson Reporter All-Area First Team honors last year.
The 6-foot Johnson averaged 17 points and nine rebounds per game last year. She’s expected to be the Lions’ team leader this year.
“Now that Bey is gone, she has to be the go-to player,” Best said of Johnson. “Teams are going to key on her, but she has to able to handle it. Last year, it was tough to defend two post players like Bey and Johnson. Now, she’s alone and teams are going to try to stop her. She has to take her game to a whole other level.”
Johnson is already receiving attention from some major colleges.
“Just about every school is asking about her,” Best said. “She understands that academics come first. She is just as much into the books this year as she is into basketball. She could be the best player in the county, but she has to want to be the best. She has to follow in Breana’s footsteps and perhaps do even more.”
Another key returning player is senior guard She’Kinah Suber. The 5-foot-7 Suber is a versatile player who can play a variety of positions.
“She can do a lot of things,” Best said of the hero of last year’s county tournament finale. “She is our best defensive player. She’s accepting the role as being the second offensive option after Johnson. She just keeps getting better. She’s one of the quickest players around.”
Suber averaged eight points per game last year. Best expects her to have more this time around.
Another key player is 5-foot-5 sophomore Zhane Williams.
“She started in the county championship game last year and she’s much improved this year,” Best said. “She’s taken over the point guard role with Natalie down. She’s a good floor leader. She just needs to make plays as a scorer, because she’s already a good passer.”
Senior Jadela Gaston is a 5-foot-8 forward.
“She’s a good outside shooter who can play big in big games,” Best said of Gaston. “She has good experience.”
Sophomore Penelope Gonzalez is a 5-foot-8 forward.
“I’m expecting her to contribute this year,” Best said. “She comes from our undefeated JV [junior varsity] team and she had a good summer. She’s definitely going to step up as a defender.”
Sophomore Maviel Gonzalez, a 5-foot-7 guard and cousin of Penelope, is also a key contributor.
“She can play the point or the off-guard,” Best said. “She has been shooting the ball pretty well and she has a good basketball IQ.”
Pamela LaRocco is a 5-foot-5 senior who provides instant offense off the bench.
“She’s one of our better outside shooters,” Best said.
Senior Tynyece Williams is a 5-foot-9 forward.
“She’s a good rebounder with point guard skills,” Best said. “She’s one of our better low post defenders. We’re going to utilize her a lot.”
Junior Dazeejah Marsh is a defensive specialist and a 5-foot-4 guard. Antoinette Shiloh is a 6-foot-2 junior inside presence, but she has to sit out the mandatory 30 days after transferring from Snyder.
The one to watch is freshman Destiny Shuler. The 5-foot-6 small forward is already with the varsity and making her way up the ranks.
“I definitely have big plans for her,” Best said.
The Lions have a great schedule that begins with their annual Christmas Tournament, one that will bring powerhouses like Rancocas Valley (runner-up in last year’s NJSIAA Tournament of Champions), Trenton Central, Paterson Kennedy, Curtis of Staten Island and Bishop Loughlin to the Lincoln gym this weekend.
The Lions won their season opener, defeating Mount St. Dominic, 46-25, last Sunday.
“I think we’ll have a good year,” Best said. “I really believe we can do it again if we work hard.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.