By Joseph Staszewski
Bria Smith likes the sound of “defending New York State Federation Class AA champion Christ the King.” It is the first time in the senior’s four-year varsity career she could enjoy such a distinction. It’s one she doesn’t plan on giving up, but knows winning a second time will only be harder.
“It feels good, but we can’t just lay our hat on that,” Smith said. “We have to go after it again and just work harder than last year.”
One of the country’s most storied girls’ basketball programs had gone three years without winning a Federation Class AA title. Last season, not only did it take home the crown by beating rival Murry Bergtraum in the semifinal and Sachem East in the final, but completed a historic sweep with the boys’ team. The Royals were 26-5 and finished the year ranked No. 12 nationally by USA Today. The school honored them with rings and recently banners to be hung in the gym.
“Just because we have all this doesn’t mean we are going to win another state championship,” junior guard Rayne Connell said. “We have to keep our composure.”
What they also keep is two Division I players in Smith (Virginia) and senior forward Nia Oden (Illinois) and also returning starters in juniors Connell and Lauren Nuss. The explosive Smith, after playing with USA basketball over the summer, is coming into the year in the best shape of her life. She has grown, gotten stronger and improved the consistency of her jump shot. Royals Coach Bob Mackey said she nearly beat the entire team by the length of the court running back from a sprint up and down the width.
“The scary part was it didn’t look like she was running hard,” he said. “She wasn’t killing herself, she was just running.”
Mackey understands that you don’t just replace someone like New York Post All-City Player of the Year Ariel Edwards, who is now at Penn State. Oden, whose offensive game improves each season, will need to pick up both her scoring and rebounding. She has always done the intangibles on defense and showed off a midrange game late in the year.
“Everyone is going to have to step up and put in extra to make up for what Ariel has done for the team,” Oden said.
That includes Connell and Nuss. Both admitted to being nervous and tentative early last season before settling in and making big contributions down the stretch. Nuss is a strong outside shooter, who proved she could handle under pressure. Connell, who shared time with the graduated Jackie Michel, is an explosive guard. She said she wants to develop into the team’s next big scorer.
“I know last year there were games where I had some nerves, now that’s done, that’s all out,” Nuss said. “We should be 10 times strong this year.”
Mackey would not comment on whether he considered bringing star freshman Sierra Calhoun up to the varsity. The Christ the King rule is that ninth-graders must play JV, but Smith and Oden competed on the varsity level as freshmen due to multiple team injuries.
The coach said the rest of his rotation is still up in the air. He returns versatile senior forward Jessica Wasserfall, who can extend defenses with her jumper, athletic senior Quincey Martin-Champman and guards Ariel Paige and Sarah Shanderson. Taylor Butigan, a raw 6-foot-1 sophomore forward is up from the JV along with guard Amanni Fernandez. CK added sharpshooting Stella Maris guard Ashley Raaf, but lost Jackie Mullen to the Hun School.
“Five, six, seven, eight, it’s pick ’em,” Mackey said. “The best part is I think we can be interchangeable. I don’t think we have to stay with this five, this is going to be the five.”
The Royals are still the team to beat in deep and talented CHSAA Brooklyn/Queens Division I, which Smith called the best it’s been in her four years. Playing through the grind of the league is something they feel winning a title last year has prepared them for and hopefully the next state title run to come.
“I think this year it’s going to be more challenging, but we are still going to have to go after it,” Smith said. “We are going to play every team as hard as we can. We are not going to be scared of anyone. We are just going to go out and play the CK way.”