Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2022-23 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 9. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season click here)
Patience is a virtue.
At least, that’s what Hannah Griffin and the Gwynedd Mercy Academy coaching staff are telling themselves now. The veteran core of years’ past for the Monarchs has largely dissipated, leaving a couple vets and a lot of young, but inexperienced players for a program used to contending in the AACA and beyond.
Coach Tom Lonergan knows how to bring a team together, but it’s not going to happen overnight.
“This is going to be a rebuilding and learning type of season and we’re just going to have to be patient. Most of these girls, they don’t really know how Coach Lonergan really coaches yet,” said Griffin, the daughter of St. Joe’s women’s coach Cindy Griffin. “With the girls who just graduated, we were together for three years, we knew how we were going to play offense and how we were going to play defense and now, we’re almost starting from scratch for the most part.”
Gwynedd Mercy senior Hannah Griffin is one of the lone familiar faces back from last season's AACA title team. (Photo: Andrew Robinson/CoBL)
Griffin, now a senior and coming off a first-team All-AACA junior year, is ready for it. She’s also not going it alone with junior forward Dylan Burke returning as a starter and senior Morgan Newell returning after contributing as a top reserve and spot-starter last winter.
Outside of that core, it’ll be a lot of new faces and names filling out the starting lineup and bench roles for the Monarchs.
Playing in a varsity game, especially a league game in January or February, is a lot different than a practice but GMA does have a few sophomores who at least were involved in that aspect last season. Cara Lapp, Megan McDonnell and Carsy Kelly all come back after spending their freshmen seasons split between practice team, JV and spot varsity minutes but are all eager to show what they can do.
Griffin noted the importance of learning the ropes in practice, citing Newell as a prime example when the guard gave GMA some huge minutes in relief when Griffin was injured during the AACA playoffs. Burke was thrust into a bigger role than anticipated last year due to an injury but she responded by taking a key role defensively and will be looked on to add some offense this season, as well as help guide the newer players to the varsity mix.
“Having Dylan and having Morgan who not only played, but in practice, Morgan was such a vital player and she has that experience of knowing how we play,” Griffin said. “Having someone like that anyone can go and ask a question so it’s not just me, that alone is a huge help.”
Freshmen Emilia Coleman and Bailey Balkir should get some looks at the guard spots and nobody is expecting them or the sophomores to know everything by the opening tip of the season.
“They’re just young and inexperienced and the only way you get better is with time,” Longergan said. “Are we going to have players scoring 12, 14, 16 points? No, but we have a lot of players who can score six, seven, eight and it all adds up to the same amount. It’s our job as coaches to figure out who’s day it is.”
Family has been a big part of the Monarchs’ success in recent years. Griffin got to play two seasons with her older sister Kaylie and dad Curtis is one of the team’s assistants while Newell played with her older sister Maddie, who graduated last year.
TJ Lonergan is back for a second season in his second stint assisting his dad on the bench and the Monarchs are filling their Coleman quota in a different way this winter. Twins Bianca (Navy) and Sofia (Kutztown) Coleman are in college but younger sister Emilia Coleman is coming in and Bill Coleman traded his spot as the head Pennsbury boys’ coach for another assistant spot on Tom Lonergan’s bench.
Adding to Gwynedd’s challenges this season is a jump to Class 5A after a long run of success at the Class 4A level that included the last five District 1 titles in that classification.
“Our teams typically start off slow, but I’d say most teams don’t want to play us come February,” Lonergan said. “That’s our goal is that come February, nobody will want to play us and I feel confident that will happen, we’re going to get that leadership from Hannah, Morgan and Dylan and they’ll bring everyone else along.”
Griffin, a terrific defensive player and a great rebounder as a guard, knows where the team will need to start in order to be successful this season.
“We have to play together,” Griffin said. “Chemistry is such a big thing in how we play but also we need to be defensive-minded, especially with Lonergan being such a defensive-oriented coach, our defense is such a huge standpoint of what Gwynedd basketball is.”
Surrounded by veteran teammates last year allowed Griffin to play at her pace and look to facilitate as opposed to scoring, then turning it up when needed. It’s a little different going into this season and the senior knows her teammates will face a learning curve as they start to see shots they got in middle school or on the travel circuit aren’t there and begin to learn how to be more efficient with their shot selection but also dribbling and passing.
“For myself, I know I’m probably going to have to shoot more and take more opportunities and learn how to create space for myself but also for others,” Griffin said. “Playing with these younger players, I’m playing off of them and I want them to play off of me and when they start getting in the flow of things, I want to know how to get them the ball in a good position that they can score in but also if I’m giving it to them, they need to bring it back so it’s not one-pass basketball.”
It’s not too often to call a reigning league champion an underdog, but the Monarchs know they’ll have some work to do if they want to repeat as the AACA’s regular season and tournament champions. Griffin finally got an elusive league title last year, so she knows how hard it is to win but the senior isn’t shying away from putting that on the team’s list of goals.
“I think we’re going to bring the unexpected in our league,” Griffin said. “A lot of the other teams have a good amount of returning players and we don’t but I think we'll be able to surprise some people.”