(Editor's note: This is the second in an occasional series of stories leading up to the start of the York-Adams winter sports season).
When the Central York girls' basketball team takes the floor for the first time this season, so much about it will look the same.
But, it might be the absence of one notable player that will stand out the most.
Coming off a 2016-17 season in which the Panthers were one of the most dominant teams in the York-Adams League, they'll be expected to replicate, if not surpass, what was accomplished a season ago. How could they not after losing just one player to graduation, returning four out of five starters and a number of key bench players?
But, it's that one player lost to graduation, Emma Saxton, who will create the slightest bit of cause for concern early in the year in what should otherwise be another dominant season.
"Emma is a big piece, but we do have a lot of seniors that have the experience at the varsity level," senior guard Sarah Sepic said during Y-A League winter sports media day on Saturday, Nov. 11. "So, I think it's going to be a very good season."
Replacing Saxton: Saxton didn't just lead the team in scoring with 14.3 points per game, she did just about everything else you could ask out of a player as well.
So, filling her void won't come easily. It'll require more than just one player stepping up to replace her lost production. Fortunately, head coach Scott Wisner believes he has the pieces to accomplish that.
"Right now, it looks like Allison Wagner, who's another senior and was the first person off the bench last year, will probably be the starter," he said during media day. "But, we have a lot of other people who got a lot of experience. Katie Markle is a junior who's a very good defender who can fill that piece. Allison is a senior who has experience and can score a little bit and has really good court sense. Then we have another senior, Taylor Marley, who's a really good shooter. So, I think people are going to fill different parts of her role. Nobody is going to do it themselves."
Loads of experience: Just from the players that Wisner referenced who he'll lean on, it's apparent that he won't be short in senior leadership.
But, that doesn't even begin to touch on what Central York has returning. Of the four starters who will be back from last year's squad that went 25-5 overall and won the Y-A League tournament, three are seniors and one is a junior.
Nikki Valencik, Teirra Preston and Sepic will head a loaded senior class, while Katie Fabbri will start for a second consecutive season after breaking out as a sophomore in 2016-17.
Valencik only trailed Saxton in scoring last season, putting up 13.7 points per game. Preston, who is signed to play for Indiana University of Pennsylvania next year, averaged more than 10 points per game. Sepic will provide a reliable outside shooting option after leading the team in 3-point field goals made (32), which ranked tied for ninth in the Y-A League.
"Ending last year how we did, making a run in districts and in states, I feel like we come into this year with a target on our back," Valencik said. "People know who we are now and now we have a lot of player who have experience in the postseason, so I think we'll be a really strong team in postseason."
Room for improvement: Even as the Panthers cruised through league play, winning Division I by one game with an 11-1 mark, and captured the league title, there's still room to improve off of last year.
A run to the District 3 6-A semifinals was met with back-to-back losses in the semifinals and the consolation game, putting Central in the state bracket as the fourth seed out of District 3. That led to the Panthers getting a tough draw, which saw them bow out of states in the second round.
So, there will be plenty for this year's squad to use as motivation to make this season better than last.
And even with the hole left behind by the dynamic Saxton, there's a wealth of talent coming back that can quickly make Saxton's absence an afterthought.
"Our goals are to get back to and try to win another county championship," Wisner said. "Then, we'd like to try to go further than we did last year. When we look at people in the district and other teams in the district and what we have back, we think that we can compete again. ...We think we know how to play in that environment, hopefully things would go a little bit better and get back to states and try to make a deeper run than we did last year."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org