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After Battling as the “Dirty Half-Dozen” Last Winter, PDS Girls’ Hoops Boasting New Strength in Numbers

HARD DRIVE: Princeton Day School girls’ basketball player Lauren Johnson drives to the hoop in a game last season. Senior star guard Johnson will be a key player for the Panthers this winter as they look to improve on the 9-13 mark posted in 2011-12. PDS tips off the upcoming season by hosting Stuart Country Day on December 5. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

For Mika Ryan, coaching the Princeton Day School girls’ basketball team last winter was about getting the most out of limited resources.

With a lineup whittled down to six players for much of the season due to a series of injuries that affectionately became known as the “dirty half-dozen,” Ryan applied the coaching acumen built up over her long career to guide the Panthers to a 9-13 record and an unlikely run to the Mercer County Tournament semifinals.

This season, Ryan has more resources at her disposal and is looking forward to figuring out the best way to deploy the talent on her roster.

“We have nine varsity and seven JV players this year; we are much healthier this year in terms of players,” said Ryan, whose coaching journey has included stints as an assistant at Virginia and Rider together with a 10-year run as the head coach of The College of New Jersey women’s program.

“Freddy Young and I are also going to coach the JV. We have been practicing the two teams together. I want them to learn our system and get used to what we do.”

In fact, the program’s strength in numbers has some of last year’s iron women concerned that they aren’t getting pushed enough.

“The captains came to me and said they think we aren’t working hard enough in practice,” said Ryan, whose team tips off the 2012-13 season by hosting hosting Stuart Country Day on December 5.

“I told them it is because we have more numbers and I want them to feel good in February. They have been great at sharing how we do things.”

Ryan feels good about a backcourt which features three battle-tested veterans in senior tri-captains Lauren Johnson and Hannah Levy together with versatile junior Emily Goldman.

“L.J. plays as hard as she can all the time, she only knows one way to play,” maintained Ryan.

“She has worked on her left hand and is working to make her shot more consistent. I think the most improved player since I got to PDS is Hannah Levy. She is a worker, you never have to motivate her. She thinks well and is mentally quick. She is not hesitant to share what the thinks. She will say this isn’t working, maybe we should try this. Goldman has so much versatility. She joined us late because of field hockey but she has brought a winner’s attitude from the success she had this fall. She is so versatile, I will ask her to play another position and she is always willing. I can play her at guard or forward.”

Exemplifying the team’s depth heading into the season, PDS boasts three reserves in junior Tess Zahn, sophomore Erin Murray, and freshman Devika Kumar, who will also see playing time at guard.

“Tess Zahn hit some big shots for us last year and is shooting well,” added Ryan.

“We are happy to have Erin Murray back after she spent a year at Peddie, she is a good ball handler. Devika has a lot of potential. She could be a good swing player. She is active and athletic and can defend a guard but she also has enough size to play inside.”

The Panthers have two good athletes in the frontcourt with promising freshmen Olivia Okorodudu and Morgan Van Liew.

“Okorodudu is fundamentally sound and very coachable; her dad played at Bucknell and her brother plays at WW/P-N,” said Ryan.

“Her footwork is excellent and she is a big, strong young lady.  She has the ability to shoot the 10-12 foot jump shot and we are working in some plays to take advantage of that. Van Liew is 6 feet tall and I think she has gotten taller since coming to PDS. She has played only one year of organized basketball. She has enormous potential and is so coachable.  She wants to learn and is a sponge on the things we coach her. She is ambidextrous and can shoot with either hand within three or four feet.  She is mobile.”

Senior tri-captain Daniela Levitan should provide the leadership to help the freshmen come along.

“Levitan is looking good; she came to us late because she was in the school play but she is working herself into shape,” said Ryan.

“She has dedicated herself to the program after not playing much as a freshman or sophomore. I am impressed by the interest she has taken in the program.”

As a result of PDS’s inside strength, Ryan is making some tactical adjustments.

“We will be going back to a style I like, going inside out,” said Ryan, who noted that the team may run a zone press at times to speed up tempo and take advantage of the height at the back end of the defense. “We have three quality post players this year so we can play that style.”

While Ryan is confident in her team’s strategic approach, she knows that rekindling the spirit that drove the team last winter won’t be easy.

“The thing I am concerned about the most is that we maintain the chemistry we had last year,” said Ryan.

“The thing that I most enjoyed was our team’s character through the ups and downs. They stayed the same people and didn’t get down on themselves. I am telling them this is your team, not my team. I am here to help you get better.”

Ryan is confident her team will get better and better as the winter unfolds. “I think we are a team that might take some lumps early because we are relying on some freshmen in key positions,” said Ryan. “I think we could become a good team as the season goes on.”

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