The Lancers are not shying from the challenge of returning to the CIAC Class M girls basketball championship game, which they lost last March, but they know a lack of experience will not give them a leg up on all the other teams that would like to make the finals as their ultimate goal for the 2013-14 season.
Coach Eric DeMarco, beginning his seventh year with Notre Dame, isn't calling that objective a sure thing to be attained by any means. But he is hopeful that as his young team grows together and as continual improvement builds its confidence, the Lancers will be strong enough to make a serious postseason run. They were SWC runners-up to Lauralton Hall last year as well.
In 2012-13, Notre Dame earned the No. 3 seed in the SWC playoffs, winning a quarterfinal and semifinal, before going 4-0 in the Class M tournament as the No. 2 seed, then losing the final to No. 1 Cromwell 42-28 to wind up 23-5.
Only one starter is back for the Lancers, with another two who compiled significant minutes expected to crack the starting lineup. The rest of the team is new to the varsity or unaccustomed to meaningful roles from previous experience in the program. This is not a battled-tested group that knows each other's ins and outs on the court. Not yet, anyway.
"We're really a work in progress right now," DeMarco said on Dec. 2 before a joint practice with Holy Cross of Waterbury in the Lancers' gym. "By the end of the year, we can be a very good basketball team."
His goals have not changed from the previous six years he's been coach. And that's to qualify as early as possible for a state tournament berth, make it into the SWC tournament, then to advance as far as they can in each playoff.
Competition for the two other starting positions is wide open, as well as for the girls who will be in the main rotations off the bench, particularly the first two or three to see action as reserves.
Senior guard/forward Brianna Mann, an honorable mention All-SWC player last year, is the lone returning starter. She is 5-foot-10 tall and quite athletic. Two players who were key components to the Lancers' success in 2012-13 are leading candidates to be in the starting five -- junior post player Nakia Mabin (5-9) and senior guard Alex Danas. The rest of the mix will sort itself out.
"I'm hoping we can make a quick adjustment to our style of play and to our defense," said DeMarco, who surpassed the 250 career-victory threshold last winter and had coached at Farmington and Seymour high schools before coming to Fairfield.
DeMarco said he is concerned about the team's general experience and the game in, game out competition of a tough conference. Among the Lancers top 20 players, only Mann and Danas are seniors. There are three juniors, seven sophomores and eight freshmen. He can be patient with the learning curve, but the competition will be unforgiving for too many nights to be banking on another 17-3 regular-season record.
What can Lancers' fans expect to see on the court? "We're going to like the open court," DeMarco said. "Right now it's a little frustrating getting them together for our half-court set." Team play begins with defensive rebounding, he said, and trying to eliminate other teams' second shots. "And we can build from there.
"For us, we have to play with each other and to each others' strengths, which we're still figuring out," DeMarco said.
Notre Dame's schedule is favorable for a team with a nice winning tradition but is in a transition mode and unlikely to be at 100 percent effectiveness for the opener. While most teams in the state begin on Wednesday, the Lancers' first game is Dec. 20 at Kolbe Cathedral in Bridgeport, a SWC semifinalist a year ago. So there there has been time to work together to build team cohesion before the season's initial tip-off.
Notre Dame scrimmaged Fairfield Warde on Monday at the Sister Marion Rielly Auditorium at Notre Dame.
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