Ossining had beaten Archbishop Molloy each of the past two seasons. But it also had Saniya Chong, who scored close to 100 points in those two games combined.
This is a new Ossining team. The Pride can drive to Connecticut and watch their former teammate perform in Gampel Pavilion, but they can no longer toss the ball to Chong and let her take over.
This season’s Ossining team must get contributions from several players, as they did in a 64-61 win over Molloy in the Slam Dunk Tournament semifinals Saturday at the County Center.
“There’s no other Saniya,” Ossining coach Dan Ricci said (pictured right). “We had a great team, but she made things a lot easier (for us). We didn’t have to run press breaks; we’d just give her the ball and get out of the way. If we needed a big play, we knew she could make it.
“These kids are growing up, but they’re making their own name for themselves.”
There was Jalay Knowles, the powerhouse junior forward who scored 23 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Her overall dominance anchored the Pride on both ends of the court.
There was Abby Squirrell (pictured below), a 6-foot-2 junior forward who added 14 rebounds. Her size aided Knowles before she fouled out in the fourth quarter.
There was Madison Strippoli, a junior forward, who had eight points and five rebounds off the bench in the first half to help keep Ossining on top at the break.
There was Shadeen Samuels, a sharp-shooting sophomore who will try to fill Chong’s shoes as a top scorer. Her free throws down the stretch bailed out a struggling Pride squad from the foul line.
Then there was Stefanie Svoboda, a junior point guard many haven’t heard of, playing in her first varsity season with the Pride. She was the glue that held it all together on Saturday.
“I thought Stefanie Svoboda was outstanding,” Ricci said. “I think Stefanie handling the pressure, and Madison coming off the bench —both did a nice job for us.”
Svoboda (pictured left) showed the poise of a seasoned veteran, and not that of a rookie making her County Center debut against the 24th-ranked team in the state. Her ability to contain the Lions’ defensive pressure and find the open shooter made Ossining’s job much easier.
“It’s great, because our JV team lost to (Molloy) by one last year, and it just feels great to beat them,” she said. “It’s kind of a big change, but we just play the same.”
Ossining, despite its rank as the sixth-best team in the state, seems to think it is the underdog this season. Granted, Lourdes (No. 15) and Clarkstown South (No. 20) are also ranked in Class AA, but after a win against Molloy and a meeting with No. 3 Long Island Lutheran for the Slam Dunk championship on Sunday at 5 p.m., the Pride could see themselves shoot into the top three by the time next week’s rankings are released on Tuesday.
“We’re trying to win the gold ball again, but no one thinks we will,” Svoboda said. “I think we will.”
Defending its Class AA state championship without Chong, who is now chasing an NCAA title with top-ranked UConn, won’t be easy; but as Knowles said, it’s an adjustment the team is making — including Sunday.
“It wasn’t just one person (Ricci) directed plays around; it was me, it was Shadeen, it was Stef, it was Alicia (Sanchez) — it was a bunch of other people,” Knowles said. “It’s different now, without Saniya, but we’re adjusting. We’re the underdogs now; we’re just playing like we have nothing to lose.”
All photos were taken by Peter Carr of The Journal News. Click here to view Peter’s entire photo gallery. Below is Peter’s video recap of the game, which includes a small interview with Ricci: