Veteran Gabriel Richard girls feel confident heading into new season

By Dave Gorgon

With a more seasoned girls basketball team on the court this year, Gabriel Richard High School Coach Omar Ahart is feeling confident about the Pioneers. 

The majority of the team of six seniors, four juniors and two freshmen are in year two of their coach’s transition system, played AAU ball in the off season and has been showing promise. 

“It’s a new space and pace type of system that a lot of college teams are doing,” Ahart said. “It’s about getting up and down the floor.” 

The Pioneers were 8-12 last season, but the coach says it’s not indicative of how they played. He’s looking for improvement. 

“The team finally got the system down toward the end of the year,” Ahart said. “We lost out on a lot of close games we could have won. The record easily could have flipped to 13-8. They were learning a system under a new coach. They played hard under a new coach. They’re playing even harder this year.” 

Ahart’s team impressed in the season opener: a 50-10 thumping of Detroit Cristo Rey. The Pioneers are scheduled to play in a holiday tournament vs. Mumford at Cass Tech before December ends. 

In line for starting assignments are three seniors and two juniors, including returning starting guard Maddie Szcechowski, who is back for her junior season. 

“She’s a real tough kid and a great defender,” Ahart said. “She learned how to settle the team down and play tough on defense. Plus, her ball handling got a lot better from last year.” 

Junior Angela Cabolang played high-powered AAU ball, has become one of the team’s “electrifying ball handlers” and starts alongside Szczechowski at guard. 

“The kid is ready to break through the ceiling this year,” Ahart said. 

The three starting seniors – Annie Payette, Destiny Jones and Sharmaye Becraft – are all getting recruited by colleges, the coach said. All three are forwards. 

Payette worked hard on her strength and conditioning and is a fine outside shooter. Jones is an athletic player who benefited from AAU ball and “runs like a gazelle,” her coach said. Becraft, who also plays volleyball and softball, may be the “heart and soul” of the team. The 5-foot-8 “ball hawk” is an excellent rebounder and gets the transition started. 

Senior Francesca Pizzo is a tough player who can provide lots of energy off the bench or go inside as a starter. Morgan Crandall, who transferred last year from Trenton, didn’t play much last season but is a high-energy senior who loves to defend. 

The other juniors on the team are Laura Lipinski and Kaitlyn Blaskiewicz. Lipinski, who tore her ACL on the first day of practice last year, is back in the lineup, working hard, shooting well and doing a lot of the “dirty work” needed by a team. Blaskiewicz, who played with the junior varsity last season, is one of GR’s best outside shooters. 

Senior Sydney Balan is fighting back from an ankle roll in the summer and should be back within the month. Coach Ahart said Balan is a “high-energy kid” who shoots the ball really well. “I’m counting on her being back.” 

Two talented freshman are part of the 12-girl roster. Both should be in sophomore form by mid-season, Ahart said. 

Six-foot Izzy Assimacopoulos was doing great things at St. Pius Catholic School and is carrying on from there, excelling in AAU ball and running up and down the floor at Gabriel Richard. 

Haley Hand, who played grade school ball at St. Joseph in Trenton, is a tough-nose ninth-grader who can go to the bucket and is working hard to get playing time. 

“The girls are getting there through hard work in practice,” Ahart said. “They are starting to understand that they way I coach, you’ve got to be in top-top shape. 

“I want my kids to play at the level I coach. Once you teach a young lady to play ball, they usually take the personality and energy from their coach.” 

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