Staff photo / Neel Madhavan
Liberty guard Aaliyah Foster goes up for a layup during a practice earlier this month. Foster is expected to be a key contributor this season for the Leopards after averaging 15.8 points per game last season.
LIBERTY — Coming off its first district title in program history, expectations remain high for the Liberty girls heading into this season.
“Definitely our goals are to maintain what we did from last year,” said head coach Deidre Watson. “We definitely want to try to win a league title again and a district title. We have a rotation of eight, which I rotated last year. We don’t have a JV program, which kind of hurts the program (overall), but we’re still motivated and we’re ready to go.”
Despite its loss in the Division III regional semifinal, Watson feels the experience the Leopards gained from their playoff run last year was invaluable and provides something that the team can build on this year.
“Seeing what it takes to win, getting that experience — I think it’s been invaluable for the girls,” Watson said. “We talked about it at the end of last year. We know what it takes to win now. (At the time), the venue was big, and it was our first time there, so I think sometimes we were kind of like a deer in headlights at times. But if we get back there, then we’ll be ready this time.”
The biggest reason for Liberty’s high expectations is that it returns the trio responsible for 77 percent of its scoring output from last season.
Seniors Demi Watson, Aaliyah Foster and Cianna Smith are back to lead the Leopards. However, Smith is expected to miss a good portion of the regular season after suffering an ACL injury during a travel tournament back in August.
Deidre said they hope to have her back by February in time for the playoffs. Smith averaged 14 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game last season.
“We still have a great nucleus,” Deidre said. “We have very experienced players who have been around the program and know what it takes. Aaliyah and Demi have been role models for the rest of the team, showing them the style of basketball and what it takes to win.”
With Smith out, the onus will likely fall on Demi and Foster to carry more of the scoring burden, at least during most of the regular season. Demi led the Leopards with 16.4 points per game last year, while Foster averaged 15.8.
“It’s funny, (Demi) and I had a conversation, she said sophomore year, which was the COVID year, it was virtually the same team. So what was the difference between sophomore year and junior year (last year)?” Deidre said. “I said now you know how to win and how to build off of it. That’s what experience gives us. They’ve seen different situations. Now we have the talent and the experience.”
Juniors Mia Parker and Kylee Thomas also return to the Leopards’ rotation. The pair each averaged about two points per game last season.
Deidre said she’s looking for sophomores Mia Benjamin and Armani Franklin to play more of a role this year, as well.
“They’ve been pretty dedicated to the program, so I expect them to do big things,” Deidre said.
So far in practice, the Leopards have focused on continuing to build team chemistry, especially in the absence of lynchpin point guard Smith.
“To me, point guard has always been the heart and soul of the offense,” Deidre said. “So trying to redefine that position and work around that to develop chemistry has been coming along well. I’m pleased with what we’ve seen so far. Still have a lot of work to do in the early season, but I think we should be where we want to be at the right time.”
But, it’s been tough in recent days because Liberty has been without three additional players this week, as well, that have all been out with the flu, according to Deidre. It forced the cancellation of the Leopards’ scheduled season opener against Austintown Fitch on Friday. Now instead, Liberty is scheduled to open its season Monday.