Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Cindy Griffin has to be feeling good about the state of her program.
The Saint Joseph’s coach led her ladies to a 20-win season for the first time in eight years, earning a spot in the WNIT, a solid jump up from the seasons prior. More importantly, the Hawks return their top four scorers from this past season, three of whom are undergrads: sophomores Talya Brugler (16.7 ppg) and Mackenzie Smith (13.6 ppg) and freshman Laura Ziegler 911.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg), the CoBL City 6 Rookie of the Year.
Cindy Griffin (above) led St. Joe's to its first 20-win season in eight years. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
With a strong incoming freshman group led by locals Gabby Casey (Lansdale Catholic) and Aleah Snead (Penn Charter) joining the fold, along with Scranton transfer Bridget Monaghan, things are still looking up for the Hawks, who need to replace sixth-year point guard Katie Jekot (6.5 ppg, 4.8 apg) but otherwise return largely intact for the first time in a long while.
CoBL spoke with Griffin about the way the 2022-23 season went, the program’s outlook for 2023-24, the first of our City 6 Coaches' Q+A series, which we'll run over the next week. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, which took place on March 30, edited for readability and length:
City of Basketball Love: Now that you’ve had a few weeks to reflect on the year — first 20-win season in eight years, all the analytics numbers were way up, how do you best define or describe the progress your program made this year?
Cindy Griffin: I would say, like, hard work pays off. We really put the work in, in the offseason with the addition of Laura Ziegler, who was a great addition for us, and Jekot’s leadership with Talya’s skillset and Mac, we had a nice core group coming back, but they worked hard and they bought in and obviously Ziegler really added to that.
CoBL: You’ll lose Katie Jekot, but in terms of the youth that you’ve had, when’s the last time the program has been in this position where you’ve had such a good young core to build around for a couple years?
CG: I think it’s been a while. We’ve always really relied on our upperclassmen that have evolved. Very rarely did we have freshmen that played, as a program, I don’t really remember that. I would say that the first year that we inherited the program, there was a lot of youth besides Susan Moran being the senior stud, All-American. The kids that surrounded her that I had inherited were very young, I would say half of them were very young and probably three of them were impact players [...] so I would say we just haven’t had a lot of young, we’ve had one or two that have started for us, but not to the degree that these guys have had that impact right away. It’s been exciting and rewarding.
CoBL: So how does that impact the conversations you have with them? Compared to the players who spend a couple years mostly waiting and learning, and then suddenly have to jump into big roles as juniors or seniors, instead of having to prepare them for big minutes, what are those bigger picture conversations like in the offseason? What is it centered around?
CG: This team, these players are so competitive. We had to give them two weeks off and they're chomping at the bit, we’re like guys we cant work you out, you can come up to the office all you want. Which is what you want, you want that. You’re only as good as your last game and we lost, we lost our last game. There’s only two teams in the country that won’t lose their last game. I think that hunger and will to get better, some of the things we didn’t do well down the stretch, which is we didn’t shoot the ball very well. There’s always an area to improve and I think that’s obviously a point of emphasis, we want to win a championship, that’s been on our goal list since the end of last year, and what does that look like, how are we going to get there, getting everybody on board, those types of things.
We’re still a work in progress and there’s nobody that’s going to be resting on their laurels, you know? It’s not like oh, we won 20 games now we can relax. No, this is the part of, this is what we all want and this is the success that we wanted; now how are we going to build on that? And I see that in our players, especially in the ones that have received a lot of the accolades this year. That’s exciting for me as a coach, and I think it’s even exciting for the players that are playing around them.
CoBL: We’re in this transfer portal era now where the season ends and several hundreds or thousands of players all leave their programs. What was your nervousness level after the season of what’s going to happen, when you have those talented young players?
CG: I think I learned in this business that I’m never surprised about anything. So the only thing you can control is yourself and what your program is doing, and how you make your players feel valued. And the culture that you built, and the culture that we’re in. I believe that this group really, really enjoys being coached by us, at St. Joe’s, and you’re always thinking about it, but at the end of the day, you can only control what you can control. I love where we are, I think we’re moving obviously in the right direction, and we have a lot of unfinished business. I feel confident about where we are, where the players are right now.
CoBL: Have you had anybody enter the portal?
CG: Jaden Walker. She was a senior, graduated.
CoBL: Obviously you also lose Katie Jekot after what seems like a solid decade of eligibility. What was your message to her post-season and where do you feel like her biggest impact was on the program?
CG: I think the message throughout the whole year was leaving her legacy, leaving your mark on the program, leaving it better than when you came in, and she did all those things. That message was expressed in the beginning of the year, it was expressed in the middle of the year, it was expressed at the end of the year. Katie left her legacy, she was the point guard of a 20-win season that was very successful, she was a 1,000-point scorer, she’s going to finish eighth on our list for assists. I’m sure she leads us in charges taken. There’s so many things she did on paper but there’s so many things that are not on the scoresheet, as far as making sure as a sixth-year point guard, just not taking things for granted, and knowing that what offense we’re in, what defense, what works for this player, what pass I’ve gotta pass to this guy, all those things that you get from playing in our program and just playing with the players that are around you. I was really happy for her to have the season that we had as a team; probably wasn’t one of her individually best performances from a stat standpoint, but it wasn’t about that for her, and because of that, we were successful.
CoBL: You mentioned something that I was going to touch on here, that her shooting and scoring numbers were not great this season. When you look at some of the girls you’re bringing in: Gabby Casey, Aleah Snead, is that where people are going to earn minutes last year, who’s going to step up and help you out at the 3-point arc?
CG: Yeah, I think our backcourt is where we struggled, late in the year. And so KJ’s shoes are really big to fill, again, I don’t think you can fill them with — the experience that she gave us, it’s really hard to replace that. But certainly, Olivia Mullins has played minutes at the point guard for us, we’ev had different people like sometimes Ziegler brings the ball up. We’ve had different players come in, but I think for the incoming freshmen, what an opportunity for them to come in and have the opportunity to play in the backcourt. And Gruber coming in from Maine and being able to help us in the frontcourt, because our guys logged a lot of minutes and that’s great and everything but we would like to be a little bit deeper and to have more of a bench presence with scoring and impacting the game. And so that’s an area of growth that we’ve got to continue to grow.
CoBL: Lansdale Catholic won PCL and state titles, Penn Charter made it to their state championship game and won the Inter-Ac, Gruber’s school in Maine had a good year. When you have girls from winning programs joining a team that’s on the rise, does that help versus someone who hasn’t done as much winning in high school?
CG: Yeah, I think we design our practices and our drills and stuff for time and score and everything is competitive. We’re not just going to go down here and just waste time, sometimes you’ve got to just drill to drill, but for the most part once practice starts, we are competitive. To have players come in who are used to being competitive and used to winning and know what it takes to win, that certainly helps. If you have to teach winning, there’s so many other things you’ve got to teach, if you’ve got to teach winning it’s going to be really tough. We’re excited about what Gabby obviously brings to the table and Aleah and Lizzy and of course we brought in Bridget Monaghan, a Division III All-American point guard, that’ll certainly help with the maturity level in our backcourt.
CoBL: Bridget’s coming to you from Scranton — can she come in and start for you at point? That’s a big jump, but she’s a point guard and has that experience.
CG: I’m never going to guarantee anybody a starting position, you still have to earn it. But from an experience and a winning standpoint, and her numbers are very good from a scoring standpoint. How that translates to Division I, we’re going to find out very soon. I feel confident about it, but she’ll compete like everybody else will. Excited about it, the level of competition in our gym is going to be off the charts and that’s what brings successful seasons.
CoBL: In terms of looking ahead to next year, any non-conference games that are already locked in?
CG: You know what, it’s a lot of reciprocation because you’re on a two-year cycle because it’s a home-and-home. A lot of it will be reciprocation from this year, minus two, because we’re going to an 18-game competition in our league. So instead of playing 16 conference games, we’re going to 18, which takes away two games, unfortunately, because we always scheduled really well, and we’ll continue to schedule well, but you always have the big 5 and City 6 games, which are terrific, and they do help, because everybody’s in the top 100, top 150, and that really prepares us because you’re getting five different looks, different competitive situations. But yeah, a lot of reciprocation, we’ll have our Hawk Classic again right before Christmas, I think it’s University of Alabama-Birmingham, who’ve had some pretty good seasons, we have New Hampshire I believe and then Wagner.
CoBL: And you obviously have plenty of time to prepare between next season, besides replacing Katie, what do you see as your biggest focal points, areas where you really want to hone in this offseason?
CG: I think leadership, I think that’s big, leadership is really big for us. I think I put a lot of emphasis on that, whether it’s leading yourself or leading others. And then just being able to score in different ways, as you get deeper and deeper into the season, just being able to continue putting the ball in the basket from different spots but also making sure that we’re continuing to rise shooting the 3 and spacing the floor, because that’s going to be really important for our bigs.