11/14/2017 7:29:00 AM Let's get started LUHS tips off girls' hoops season tonight
Senior Olivia Killian (25) is one of four returning starters who Lakeland Union High School will rely upon to win a second consecutive Great Northern Conference girls’ basketball championship.
Lakeland Union High School has established a culture of high expectations on the girls' basketball court during head coach Melissa Ouimette's first two seasons at the helm.
The Thunderbirds have gone 35-10 in the last two years, including an unbeaten Great Northern Conference campaign last year.
The loss of Lilith Schuman and Sydney Ziebart - who combined to average more than 27 points and nearly 11 steals per game - to graduation leaves a major void in the lineup, but Lakeland does return four girls who started at various points last year, keeping the goal of winning the conference at the forefront once again.
"One thing I want players to learn from me when they leave my program is I want them setting very high expectations for themselves," Ouimette said. "If they don't set high expectations, I don't believe you work as hard. So, of course, we want to win conference."
One of those four returnees is junior Melissa Bruckner, who led the team in scoring last year with 17.4 points per game, while also leading the team with 5.3 rebounds per game, to go along with 5.3 steals per game.
Bruckner was a second-team All-GNC selection last year, making her the only sophomore to be chosen on the first or second team.
Just like the goals for the team, Ouimette has high expectations for Bruckner individually, which include averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds each night.
Having that breakout season last year has prepared Bruckner to take the next step as one of the favorites to win the GNC Player of the Year this season.
"It helped me a ton," Bruckner said. "Syd and Lilith helped me so much last year. The whole team helped me and the whole experience was just great."
Despite the presence of Bruckner, Lakeland still must find a way to make up nearly 30 points each night.
Zoey Ziebart, Riley Curtis and Olivia Killian, along with sophomore Abby Parris, combined to score 18 points per game last year - Spooner transfer Emma Salquist averaged double figures last season, but won't be available until after the New Year due to an injury - but that number is going to have to elevate to 35-40 between them for the T-Birds to be successful.
"Abby Parris can obviously shoot the ball nicely from outside, so we have to see how she's going to do with pressure on her and how quickly she can get that nice shot off," Ouimette said. "Riley Curtis, Zoey Ziebart, Olivia Killian - if they all can get about 10 points a game, it's really going to help us out. If we have an even scoring attack from four or five people and Melissa can pour in her 20-plus points per game, I think we'll be right there at where we were with 70-some points per game."
A significant amount of Lakeland's points came off of turnovers forced by a fierce full-court press last year.
The T-Birds averaged 22.4 steals per game last season, but half came from Schuman and Ziebart at the head of the press.
Despite those losses, Lakeland won't change its style of play, given it once again lacks height to slow the game down.
"We're all 5-foot-5 and Melissa Bruckner is about 5-foot-9, so we're not a tall team," Ouimette said. "Medford has (girls that are) 6-foot-1, so they can play three in and two out and slow the game down. A lot of teams can do that, I can't do that. We're going to press, we're going to fast break, we're going to try and score as quickly as we can."
One thing Lakeland does have to find is a point guard, which may be the area where the T-Birds feel the biggest impact from losing Schuman and Ziebart, as both handled the ball in key situations and could push it up the floor in transition.
Curtis was able to play some point guard last season, while Vivian Trapp saw time as a backup last year. Killian could see time handling the ball, as could Abby Parris or freshman Amaya White.
"It could be a Vivian Trapp, it could be an Abby Parris, it could be a Riley Curtis, it could be an Amaya White or it could be Olivia Killian," Ouimette said. "Those are the ones I'm looking at right now."
Lakeland had a successful team last season, going 19-3, but it wasn't a deep team.
At times, the T-Birds only played six or seven girls consistently, so Ouimette would like to establish a deeper bench this year.
That means some younger players could get into the mix, with as many as nine freshmen competing for varsity playing time.
"There are some possibilities for some of those freshmen, maybe one or two, to step in to some of the varsity spots," Ouimette said. "It all boils down to how hard they want to work in practice and how timid they may or may not be playing against juniors and seniors. I've seen some wonderful players who back down from that."
Lakeland begins its season tonight at Newman Catholic, with tip-off scheduled for 7:15 p.m.
Nick Sabato may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @SabatoNick.