Author: Dan O'Meara / John Stormzand
The youth and inexperience of the 2014-15 Mercy High School basketball team was made apparent to coach Gary Morris at one of the first preseason practices.
"We were going to do a drill we did last year, and I said: 'Let's get some kids who know this,'" Morris said. "The kids were looking around. I realized, 'The kids probably don't know this.'"
The situation is quite different for the Marlins as they adapt to the loss of seven seniors and prepare to start a new season Tuesday night.
Mercy enjoyed its best season in nearly a quarter century, winning the Catholic League championship, advancing to the semifinals of the Class A state tournament and posting a 25-2 record.
All-state guard Candice Leatherwood, Sam Bauer, Sierra LaGrande and Allie Gorcyca were starters. Tyler Parlor and Paige Roberts were often the first players off the bench.
"When I reflect on it, it's amazing we lost (only) two games," Morris said. "We played state champion Marian four times, state finalist Canton, Flint Powers, Goodrich, Grosse Pointe South and (Detroit) King. That was really quite the season.
"We went into the season with high expectations. If there was pressure, it was to do something like get to Breslin Center (in East Lansing for the final four), which we did."
The Marlins had five returning players, but that dropped by one when senior Bridget Lyons suffered a knee injury a few weeks before practice started and required surgery.
Morris had been counting on the 5-foot-10 forward to give the Marlins a presence in the post.
"It's a shame any time a player loses a season before it begins but especially when it's a senior," he said.
Mercy still has one of the best players in the metro area in 5-7 senior guard Taylor Jones, a two-time, all-area player who led the team with 13.2 points per game.
Jones, who recently signed with Oakland University, also is an outstanding defensive player, especially on the press. She averaged two rebounds and two steals, too.
"She has added to her game from last year," Morris said, citing Jones' improved outside shot. "She's a very capable three-point shooter now in addition to being able to slash and get to the basket.
"I think she's also going to be better for us defensively. She's been a good on-the-ball defender, but we're looking for her to do more off the ball, anticipating things with her wing span and getting in the passing lanes."
Morris added the cupboard is certainly not bare. Jones is a good starting point, and the Marlins will have to build around her.
The Marlins also return seniors Sierra Wangler, Zora Pullen and Jordan Johnson. All three are good-sized guards in the 5-7 to 5-9 range who will be expected to help with rebounding.
Wangler was one of the top reserves last season and is another outstanding defender. She can guard a one through a five, according to Morris.
"She brings a great deal of energy to our team," he said. "We're going to look for her to do more for us offensively.
"She has a good first step and the ability to get somewhere and take a pull-up jumper or get to the basket."
Johnson will play a wing position and be either a two or a three. She has the potential to be a good outside shooter. She also plays softball for the Marlins.
"I like those type of kids, because they're used to competing and playing in big games," Morris said. "We'll look for her to provide some outside shooting and just some experience and senior leadership."
With so many seniors last season, Pullen didn't get a lot of playing time, but she could give the Marlins a lift offensively and help to replace the points that were lost.
"Zora has a great ability to score," Morris said. "She can score around the basket, and she has a good mid-range game. Certain kids just have the ability to score, and she's one of those kids."
Mercy has nine new players on its varsity; however, it was dealt another setback when freshman Jenna Schluter injured a knee playing indoor soccer. She was expected to be the starting point guard and will likely miss the season.
"She's very impressive in terms of her basketball IQ," Morris said. "She reminds me a little in that regard of Candice. As far as being a floor general, she has that presence about her."
Six players are moving up from a JV team that was 19-0 – juniors Jordyn Schluter, Katie Bryce, Lauryn Hauncher and Marisa Hardenbergh and sophomores Claire Murray and Jackie Bauer. The juniors were 37-1 during two seasons on the JV.
"They're used to winning and we hope that mindset is going to help us even though we are inexperienced at the varsity level," Morris said.
Schluter is a good three-point shooter, and Morris looks for her to have an impact at the varsity level. She, Bryce, Hardenbergh and Bauer are guards; Hauncher and Murray are forwards.
Sophomore guard Chloe Godbold is a transfer from Southfield Christian and will be eligible in the second semester.
Senior post Kailey Savona completes the varsity. She was the team manager, worked hard on her game and improved enough to make the team.
Despite the overall lack of experience, Morris is optimistic about his team's potential and its chances for success.
"We saw some good things from the kids this summer," he said. "A number of them have improved noticeably since last March. They deserve the credit for that, because that happened in the off season.
"We're going to have our ups and downs as inexperienced teams will have. We'll have some rough times, but I think we'll be a good team at some point during the season."
The Marlins will play a difficult non-league schedule in December before they start Catholic League Central Division play in January.
Bloomfield Hills Marian is the defending state champion and only lost one player (center Laura Bruton) to graduation.
"We'll be playing some good teams and will have to grow up pretty quickly," Morris said. "We use December to get us ready for the Central Division battles and, hopefully, those prepare us for the state tournament. That's the plan."