Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)
(Ed. Note: This story is the latest in CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2021-22 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed can be found here.)
Think of the Upper Dublin girls' basketball team as a math problem.
The past three years, the Cardinals came into the season with a lot of the variables already filled in and making the eventual equation that much easier to put together. It's a different story this season, as UD has a lot more unknowns in the problem to solve if it wants to retain its spot as one of the top teams in District 1's Class 6A.
Upper Dublin has its least experienced team in a few years, but the Cardinals are still looking to surprise.
Bliss Brenner (left) and Amy Ngo are back to lead Upper Dublin's Lady Cardinals. (Photo: Andrew Robinson/CoBL)
"Our team knows we had some big losses from last year, so we're all willing to step up and come together," senior Bliss Brenner said.
Even coach Morgan Funsten, a math teacher at UDHS, admits the losses in terms of numbers are hard to ignore. The Cardinals graduated their all-time leader in assists, Jess Polin (East Stroudsburg), a 1,000-point scorer and all-time leader in 3-pointers Dayna Balasa (USciences) and likely their unofficial all-time leader in miles run playing defense in Sarah Eskew (Rider track and field), all four-year varsity players.
At least there are a couple parts of the puzzle already known. If Amy Ngo means buckets and Brenner means stops, then the Cardinals at least have a base to start building around.
Filling in the rest of the x's, y's and z's in the equation is where the work starts.
"We have a lot of multi-sport athletes, what we need to do most is just play together and we haven't really had the chance," Funsten, who led UD to the PIAA 6A title in 2018, said. "I think it is a major advantage to us having those multi-sport athletes because they're just used to competing all the time. That's arguably sometimes the most important attribute of a team, to know how to compete and these girls know how to compete.
"We're pretty optimistic about this year and I think we have a chance to surprise some people."
Brenner is coming off a standout soccer season where as a co-captain on defense, she helped the Cardinals turn a 1-8-1 2020 record into a district playoff appearance in 2021 and enters her fourth season on the varsity basketball roster. Also an ace hoops defender, Brenner checks everyone from guards to posts and can knock down a few threes if she's open on the perimeter.
The senior isn't shying away from leadership on the basketball court either.
"Her experience is right up there with the seniors who graduated last year in terms of playing in big games," Funsten said. "You basically could have called her a starter as a freshman on a really good team, no moment is too big for her and she's a great leader. I don't know what our identity is yet, but I'm looking forward to seeing her mold this team to whatever identity that is."
Morgan Funsten (third from left) has been running the Upper Dublin girls' basketball program since 2012. (Photo: Andrew Robinson/CoBL)
Ngo enters her second season with any surprise factor all but gone. Jumping right in, first as the team's super-sub and then into the starting five, the 5-foot-6 guard quickly found her way onto opposing scouting reports with an offensive game that features 3-point shooting, driving to the lane and scoring off the ball.
Unlike many of her teammates, Ngo is all-in on hoops and understands there's a lot more attention coming her way without Balasa or Polin there to draw some defenders away. The prep work has already started and Ngo has done some practice problem-solving by watching film of her teammates from last year.
"I think my mentality is the biggest thing," Ngo said. "I have to be calm and figure out what play is right in that moment, not force things and look for my teammates. If I can drive in, the other team will crash and that means someone has a wide-open shot, so I think that's something I can always look for."
Ngo had a lot of success playing off Polin, which led to a lot of easy baskets off cuts or kick-outs. With the ball now in her hands more, Ngo said she's watched how Polin facilitated the offense and is trying to read the game the same way the program's top passer did.
Funsten said the main thing he's stressed with Ngo is keeping the game fun. Added expectations mean added pressure to live up to them, but Funsten doesn't want Ngo to think she has to be perfect
"Amy Ngo eats, drinks, sleeps and breathes basketball," Funsten said. "She's in the gym everyday after school to shoot and works on her game non-stop. Some of the other girls in the program are actually taking the lead from her and have started to join in, which is pretty cool to see a sophomore embrace that quiet type of lead-by-example method."
Outside of Ngo and Brenner, Funsten sees seniors Geena Sarnoski and Colleen Klammer as likely starters. Sarnoski, also a soccer co-captain, saw minutes as a reserve last year while Klammer, who will be UD's post presence, is getting her first extended varsity experience.
From there, it's all variables and a lot of unknowns.
"We're looking for help from the other players, we're not as deep of a program as we've been in the past but we think we can have a lot of success," Funsten said. "It goes back again to trying to draw on the competitive nature of the girls in our program."
Just because the roster is relatively unproven doesn't mean the Cardinals are slacking off when it comes to scheduling. With a normal slate of games back, UD will start with its usual tilts against CB East and CB South and brings back its holiday tournament with Germantown Academy, North Penn and Mount Saint Joseph.
Then there's the constant in the schedule equation, which is the SOL Liberty and the home-and-away matchups with Plymouth Whitemarsh and Abington. UD will also crossover with the SOL Patriot this season.
"With every game, there are positives and negatives but you get more if you learn from the negatives," Brenner said. "We're rivals with at least half the teams we play. Everything is so competitive but that's good motivation for us because we want to carry on the legacy of everyone that's been so good for this team in the years before."
Every team wants to be playing its best by the end of the season. For the Cardinals, doing that will also be a sign that things have gone well and they found a few players to help fill the variables and get a bit closer to solving the equation.
Ngo loves the competitive nature her teammates bring to every workout and the sophomore added there's already a lot of trust between players and a solid understanding of roles. They understand the tradition and success the program has had in recent years and this is their chance to make it their own.
"We work hard every time we get into the gym," Ngo said. "That's all you can ask for. We all want to win."