By Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of 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 2023-24 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed thus far can be found here.)
This time a year ago, Conestoga didn’t even know what it didn’t know.
The Pioneers knew they had a promising group of players and they knew they wanted to put their program on the map. They didn’t quite yet know what it looked or felt like to contend for a league title or get into the state playoffs, so with a lot of wins came a lot of learning.
This season, Conestoga knows plenty and the Pioneers know where they want to go.
“You don’t know until you know,” coach AJ Thompson said. “You don’t know until you get there and see it, and I tried to prep them for it and tried to tell them what it’s like to play in states but until you walk in the gym, it’s a big crowd, there’s college coaches there, it’s a different atmosphere.”
Last year’s 22-8 record, Central League runner-up finish and PIAA 6A first round exit were all tremendous stepping stones for the program. Conestoga has a strong athletics tradition with its’ girls’ soccer, field hockey and lacrosse programs usually among the tops in the state and this group of players is eager to elevate basketball to that level.
Conestoga sophomore Ryann Jennings made an immediate impact last season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)
That glimpse of success also served as fuel this summer. With the majority of the team’s minutes and production due back for another year, it seemed like every player went out and authored a strong travel season before coming back together in Berwyn this fall.
“I think this year, people are expecting us to do a little bit more,” said senior point guard Marisa Francione, who recently committed to Scranton. “We’re taking that and working harder. We’re going to see it, we’re playing stronger teams this year so that’s a new approach.”
The ‘Stoga core got a major lift with Ryann Jennings’ arrival as a freshman last year and the wing only figures to add more coming off a productive summer with the Comets.
“All summer, everyone was thinking about this upcoming season,” Jennings said. “We’re ready to play, we want to take it to the next level. Last year was a good season, but we want to go even farther.”
Thompson heads into his sixth season with an overall veteran team that’s sure of its identity. Francione had a terrific summer, winning the HGSL 17U title with her Runnin’ Rebels squad and she returns as the engine of a squad that’s got balance and experience top to bottom.
Twins Bella and Katrina Valencia, along with guard Arielle LePage, have been alongside Francione for each step of the build. After missing out on the postseason as freshmen, they helped the Pioneers to a 13-8 record in 21-22 and then set the foundation for last year’s run.
“There’s more faith in us this year, so our confidence has been increasing from last year and through the summer,” Francione said.
With juniors Ruth Lanouette and Janie Preston also back in the fold, the Pioneers have their entire regular starting lineup back so the continuity part is already there. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a finished product either.
There’s always new contributors ready to step in, with sophomores Maggie Neary and Libby Brown also coming back off a solid summer, or players who added something new.
“Everyone is returning, everyone is another year better, so we’re just looking to continue improving on everything,” Francione said.
Conestoga senior guard Marisa Francione recently committed to Scranton. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)
Thompson spent some of his summer traveling to tournaments to see his players with their respective club teams and saw plenty of improvement across the board.
Preston, a 6-foot-1 forward, has been playing well in the team’s fall games while showing an expanded offense that goes from the low block out to the three point line. Thompson said the Pioneers will be looking to get her the ball in different areas of the court.
Francione is eager to see the team play a little more in transition as well, looking to take advantage of the guards’ usual pesky defense and Jennings added there’s been a team-wide emphasis on working on perimeter shooting.
“Nobody’s out there looking for themselves, it’s all about what they can do to help the team,” Thompson said. “You’ve got Katrina out here trying to take a charge in September, that’s something you love to see. They’re so selfless they want to play hard for each other and win for each other.”
With last year’s Central League champion Haverford and annual contender Springfield-Delco both retooling, the experienced Pioneers enter the season as a favorite in the league. However, Garnet Valley also returns a good portion of its lineup and there’s no overlooking any Central League dates on the calendar.
Conestoga will open its season at reigning PIAA 3A champion Dunmore, which also happens to be Thompson’s alma mater. The Pioneers will be in Wildwood over the holiday break and their non-league slate should help accent the competition in the Central League.
“Over the past couple years, we’ve kept increasing the bar for our team,” Francione said. “Everyone’s on the same page, we want to take our talent and see how far we can take it through districts and states.”
This time around, the Pioneers also know what’s coming.
“Last year was great, we had high expectations but I think now our girls are starting to believe that they’re good,” Thompson said. “Last year was about trying to get them to believe ‘you can beat anybody' and getting to the Central League championship and the first round of states showed that.”
“We’ve got goals we want to set and now we know what it takes to get there.”