By Ryan Coyle (@ryancoyle35)
(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.)
Going into the 2022-23 season, Bensalem girls basketball head coach Steve Johnson had a clear goal for his team — qualify for the District 1 Class 6A playoffs.
The Owls came up short, finishing 8-14 and failing to qualify for the postseason.
What got in the way of Johnson’s team achieving that goal?
Bensalem's junior Talia DiMichele is one one of the players back for the Owls (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“I don’t think we were as close knit as some other teams,” Johnson said. “I think talent-wise we were right there with a lot of teams, but we weren’t as close as a group as we needed to be and I think that played a role in how our season went.”
The team's mantra last season was “We not me,” and while Johnson doesn’t believe it was selfish play that led to a disappointing season relative to their expectations heading in, he has emphasized togetherness and camaraderie the past nine months.
“Coach talked a lot about it this offseason,” senior Amber Howard said. “And as a team, I don’t think it was something we really noticed until it was brought to our attention. But it has been a point of emphasis this offseason, and I have noticed us being closer and more connected through our offseason games and practices, which is good to see.”
The Owls again have one goal clearly outlined for 2023-24 — get their ticket to the dance and an opportunity to make some noise.
“That would be great, I want to make sure these seniors have that opportunity,” Johnson said. “But we won’t be content with just making it. We want to win a playoff game and really make our mark this year. This program hasn’t done that in a long time, and that would be something special for all of us.”
Making the district playoffs for the first time since the 2019-20 season starts with Howard, a Division I commit to North Carolina A&T.
On track to break the 1,000-point mark during her senior season, Howard wants to go out with a bang and help this group leave their mark on a program that has not had much success in recent history.
“In my three years here we haven’t got there, so me and the other seniors know this is our last shot,” Howard said. “Coach has really made an emphasis on us getting to the playoffs and going out on the right note.”
“It has been great to see her grow as a player and a person and develop into a future Division I basketball player,” Johnson said. “She was able to commit this summer, so she has that behind her and is stress free and can just focus on basketball. She has had a great offseason, and I am excited to see what she can do this year.”
Howard was a first-team All-Suburban One League selection last year and has a diverse inside-out offensive game. She received a lot of attention from opposing defenses last season.
“We would pause it when we watched film and there would be times where Amber had 10 eyes on her,” Johnson said. “So that is something we have been working on, how to attack out of those double teams and what we can do to combat those.”
Bensalem's Amber Howard is closing in on 1,000 career points and will be the focal point of defensive game plans this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
When double teams come it leads to opportunities for others to step up and make plays, and Johnson is counting on Talia DiMichelle, Devon Bell and Grace McShane to help out in the scoring column.
“We have Talia coming back as well, she is going to be counted on a lot in the backcourt for us,” Johnson said. “She was an honorable mention player last year. Devon Bell is going to be counted on a lot this year, too. Her and Talia are very similar players, they play very well together. They both can shoot the lights out.”
The combination of Bell and DiMichele, along with their shooting prowess in Bensalem’s new-look, five-out offense, should help stretch the floor and give Howard more freedom, with less double teams coming her way.
Defensively, the Owls are aiming to use their athleticism to their advantage and turn up the pressure a little more this year with the trio of DiMichele, Howard and McShane jumping passing lanes to convert defense to offense, another way of lessening the attention Howard will see.
McShane, a sophomore who saw limited minutes off the bench last year, is going to be counted on to make a sophomore leap and play significant minutes for the Owls this year.
“I have seen a lot from her this offseason and her improvements from that experience she got,” Howard said. “She looks more comfortable, and I think she could have a big season for us. I have been playing more and more with her, and we have gotten comfortable on the court together.”
Peyton Miller will be counted on as a sophomore to do the “little things” and help bring a toughness and edge to the team with her rebounding ability and intensity. Ariana Jenkins will be in the mix as a rotational piece.
But the Owls’ focus on coming together in a game’s defining moments will ultimately determine the ceiling of this team.
“The close-knit teams come together when the games get tough and adversity hits,” Johnson said. “I looked myself in the mirror this offseason and realized what I had to change for this team and ways to bring us together more, and I think it is going to help us out with the talent that we have.
“Making sure everyone is at workouts and working with different teammates, make sure they are sitting together in between summer league games, making sure we are high-fiving during drills and everyone is constantly bringing energy. Things like that where it might not look like much now, but hopefully are actions that will follow on the court come game time.”