WILKES-BARRE — It all started this past summer.
A group of the King’s women’s basketball team got together on their own for workouts and pickup games, primarily made up of eight former District 2 athletes. Five former Wyoming Valley Conference standouts — Wyoming Valley West grad Olivia Hoffman, Dallas grad Maggie Michael, Berwick grad Alexis Steeber, Hazleton Area grad Mackenzie Yori and Holy Redeemer grad Rebecca Prociak — joined three former members of the Lackawanna League — Holy Cross grad Lindsey Dippre, Scranton Prep grad Erin Schmidt and Delaware Valley grad Hannah Gallagher.
It was then that the 2017-18 season unofficially began, and they started to put in the work for what could turn into a special season for the Lady Monarchs.
“It showed the excitement even back then. As a senior, I thought, ‘Wow,’ ” Hoffman said. “I could really see this developing. I thought this could be a good year. There’s so many things. Even just being pickup and having it be so free-flowing, you could see all the different options we would take and do. It was just really, really nice to see that coming together.”
“I think it just made it so much more sweeter,” Yori said. “We always knew that each other had the capabilities and all the skills in the world and it’s just awesome to have us all together on one team now. We just really picked up a lot of good chemistry early and I think that’s really important, and I think chemistry stems from being off the court with each other. We just clicked immediately.”
King’s hasn’t finished with a winning record since the 2012-13 season, which ended with a Freedom Conference final appearance against FDU-Florham. They finished just 5-19 last season. But the Lady Monarchs are ready to change that.
At the heart of this transformation are the five former WVC athletes. Yori, Hoffman, Prociak and Steeber are the Lady Monarchs’ top-four scorers through the team’s first four games, while Michael is one of three team captains. Hoffman is also a captain.
“I think this year it’s created a little bit of excitement, especially with Mack joining us,” King’s coach Caitlin Hadzimichalis said. “You get that name recognition. You remember those kids who you had tough battles against all through high school, you remember the kids that you were competing for in the statistical categories and all of that fun stuff — I mean with Becca and Mack going back and forth with free throws and scoring.
“When they finally get to play each other, they’re like, ‘Ooh,’ and their eyes light up going with it. Whereas last year they were excited for it, and I think that’s where it started. Because now when you get these other local top players they realize, ‘No this is now. We’re not enemies or anything else. We’re together and we’re going to go after it and show what we got.’ ”
Picked to finish fifth in the Freedom Conference this season, it would be an improvement from last year’s seventh-place showing. But it’s not exactly where the Lady Monarchs want to be.
Their goals are much higher than that, and they’ve gotten off on the right foot to back up their expectations.
The Lady Monarchs are 3-1 heading into the Thanksgiving break and have already avenged a pair of losses from last season against Neumann and Marywood.
Both schools played in the postseason a year ago.
“I think just all four years, it’s just a different atmosphere. It’s a different mindset,” Hoffman said. “It just felt different from the start, from the summer when we all met up. I think seeing that, knowing, ‘OK, what has happened in the past, yeah, wasn’t our best season.’ But now, just coming and avenging that and knowing, ‘OK, we know we can do this.’
“Seeing it in the summer and seeing the little things we can do here and there and how we work together. It’s just really nice to see that, and I think that flows on the court and off the court as well.”
“The chemistry was just there from when we picked the ball up in the summer and it just continued,” Yori added. “We just kept building that off of every practice and every game and continuing to gel and getting used to still playing with each other.”
Not only did the Lady Monarchs bring back three of their top-four scorers from a year ago in Prociak, a sophomore, Steeber, a junior, and Hoffman, a senior, but Schmidt, who’s now a junior, also returns as the team’s top sharpshooter. She buried 31 3-pointers last season.
Then mix in Yori, who started all 30 games for nationally ranked Scranton and finished fourth on her team in points and third in assists last season. Hoffman described Yori as the type of point guard she hasn’t played with since she was at Valley West.
“Win a championship, duh,” Prociak said of the team’s goal. “We want to play well every game. We want to play well. We want to do what we do. It’s us. We want to work on us. But we want to win the championship and make playoffs.”
“And we know we have the talent for it and that just contributes to our work drive, and that’s just our drive — to continue to keep working,” Yori added.
“I think with our mindset of having a winning season, that’s going to take us into other things. Like they said, playoffs and championships, that’d be really nice,” Hoffman chimed in.
It was clear early on that Yori was the spark the Lady Monarchs had been looking for.
From those early summer workouts to the program’s “girls camp” to the preseason, the team greeted their former rival with welcome arms. So much so that Hoffman and Prociak even reached out to her as soon as they heard she was transferring.
Yori’s transition to the Lady Monarchs has been fluid, which she credits her teammates and coaches for making “easy.” The sophomore scored a career-high 30 points against Marywood this past Saturday.
“We all just really connect with each other, especially on the court,” Prociak said. “We know each other’s strengths and that just helps build our chemistry with each other and it really has showed early on. A lot of coaches have seen that we just love playing with each other.
“Our team, we have so much talent, but I think this year we just trust each other so much. Definitely, that’s the difference. The biggest thing.”
With eight of the 13 Lady Monarchs coming from right inside District 2, the group has grown close very quickly. Yori described herself and the rest of her teammates as “crazy” and “fun” which drew laughs from both Hoffman and Prociak with Hoffman adding “we’re pretty nuts.”
Yori (fourth), Hoffman (10th), Prociak (12th) and Steeber (15th) all rank in the top-15 in scoring in the Freedom Conference, while Hoffman (sixth) and Prociak (seventh) sit in the top-10 in rebounds, after Tuesday’s games. Yori and Hoffman rank first and second, respectively, in field goal percentage as well.
This is a team that is showing early signs that it has bought in to what Hadzimichalis has been preaching for the last year and a half, which begs the question what is in store for the Lady Monarchs.
“The clock could not move fast enough to Oct. 15,” the second-year head coach said of the start of practice. “Because from my office, you can hear them in the gym and you can’t go out, you can’t work with them. And you know what you have and you’re trying to toy with what we do offensively and defensively to fit what they do, and it already kind of fit. We already kind of tailored it, we were just missing those perimeter threats to build off of what those players here were already doing.
“When you add Mack and you add Lindsey Dippre, from Lackawanna, they’re veteran kids who know how to win and know how to play. It’s just something that we envisioned. It’s not a surprise to this coaching staff. I know I’m young and I know that might sound bold or whatever, but this is what we envision when we started putting this group together.”