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Lady Tigers seek league title

After a few lean years, Northwestern's girls basketball team has been on a steady rise over the last few seasons.

The Lady Tigers, which won just three games in the 2009-10 season, won seven games the next year and improved to 15-9 overall and 11-5 in the Colonial League last year.

They qualified for the district playoffs for the first time in three years and made league playoffs for the first time since winning the 2007 title.

This year's team, which returns five players with experience as varsity starters, has realistic hopes of winning a championship banner this year.

"Our goal is to win the Colonial League championship," said 10th-year head coach Chris Deutsch. "That is the goal. Is it going to be easy? No. You have a lot of balance in the Colonial League this year."

The Tigers likely starting line up includes seniors Sara Jones and Kaleen Suter, junior Trista Cunningham and sophomores Sabrina Mertz and Sarah Segan.

Jones, who has led the team in scoring the past three years, comes into the season with 881 points for her career and will likely cross the 1,000-point mark in her career, although that's not her biggest concern heading into the season.

"I really just want a title," said Jones. "If (her 1,000th point) comes along, it comes along."

Jones, who will play mostly shooting guard and small forward, averaged 14.3 points per game last season and was a unanimous All League First Team selection.

Suter returns to the line up after missing last season with an ACL tear. As a sophomore she was the team's second-leading scorer (8.3 ppg). A 5-foot-9 power forward, Suter will join Cunningham on the front line to give the Tigers a solid presence under the basket.

Cunningham, a center who earned a spot in the starting line up five games into her freshman season, was third on the team with 6.6 points per game last year and was the team's top rebounder.

Mertz and Segan played fearlessly as freshmen last year.

Segan was second on the team with 8.1 points per game. A 5-foot-9 guard/forward, she can fill any position on the floor and will be a match up problem for opposing teams.

Mertz, who scored 6.17 points per game, was the team's point guard and earned All League Honorable Mention Honors as a freshman. She is also a tenacious defensive player.

According to Deutsch, defense is the key to success this season.

"If we don't play good defense we're going to struggle," he said. "I thought this summer our defense was really good.

"We have to get up and pressure people. We want an up-tempo type of game. The faster the game the better for us."

Deutsch likes this team as much as any he has ever coached. He appreciates the players' work ethic, their tenacity and toughness from top to bottom, not just in the starting five. The team has more depth than any he has coached in the past.

Two players return from last year's varsity roster in juniors Erynn Day and Cheyenne Shupp. Shupp missed both of the last two seasons with knee injuries but has stuck with it and is ready for this season.

"She's torn her ACL two years in a row," said Deutsch. "She's come to practice in double knee braces. For her to come back and not give up really shows something."

Several varsity newcomers will also see significant minutes.

Sophomore Lauren Anderson, a 5-9 forward, brings size and athleticism. Freshmen Megan Landrigan and Erika Thomas, a skilled outside shooter, could also see a lot of playing time.

Junior guard Kylee Bennett, sophomore guard/forward Lexi Gawelko and freshman Mikaela Koenig will also help the team. All 13 varsity players are likely to contribute.

"We have great depth," said Deutsch. "If you want to play an up-and-down, pressure type of game, you've got to have a bench."

"In the past," said Suter. "We had to play our starting five almost the whole game. This year we have girls that come off the bench and contribute. We can trust everyone on the court and we're going to have fresh legs all the time."

With that depth also comes versatility. Jones can play any of four positions. Segan can play all five. Several players, even some of the Tigers post players, can bring the ball up the court if the Tigers need to force match ups. Segan filled in at point guard at times last season. Jones played that spot as a sophomore because the team needed it.

"I could let Suter bring the ball up," said Deutsch. "If a big girl wants to try and guard her in the open court they're going to struggle with that."

The Tigers could go with a four-guard line up. They could keep it more traditional. They could even go with a bigger line up, depending on opponents, match ups and who has the hot hand.

Coming off a summer in which Northwestern won the SportsFest Tournament by beating six Lehigh Valley Conference teams, the Tigers' high expectations are certainly warranted. They will likely have to battle two-time league champ Southern Lehigh, as well as Bangor and Notre Dame (Green Pond), which won this year's Stellar Tournament.

As much as Deutch likes his team's talent, experience and depth, he also likes the intangibles this group brings to the court.

He calls Jones one of the best two leaders he's ever coached, sharing that title with 2007 graduate and former league MVP Ali Horn.

He likes his team's unity. Many of these players have been on the hardwood together for a long time and are teammates in other sports as well.

But most of all, he likes his team's toughness and determination.

"We have girls that aren't going to back down," he said. "These girls hate to lose. We've had some teams in the past that hated to lose and those were the groups we were the most successful with. That's how this group is."