Defense minded: Cherokee uses experience to keep Chiefs on track

Within the teams first nine games, the Chiefs have allowed the fewest points in the Olympic Conference this season

MATTHEW SHINKLE/South Jersey Sports Weekly:
Following the graduation of Alexa Therien at the end of last season, Cherokee has done well to use the experience of returning starters to pick up where they left off last basketball season, all in the name of stifling defense.

Since taking over the Cherokee girls basketball program, coach Ron Powell has preached a game plan strongly centered around a defensive philosophy. 

The combination of not giving up second-chance shots – while also perfecting the art of creating  their own quality shot on the other end of the floor – is what’s helped make the Chiefs so successful in recent years.

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There are some who thought the Chiefs may suffer this year following the graduation of Alexa Therien, who scored more than 1,200 points for Cherokee during her high-school career before graduating and moving on to Loyola University in Maryland.

In the early going of the 2021-’22 season, it’s safe to say that hasn’t been the case after a 7-2 start, with the Chiefs’ seventh win coming in a close game that handed Shawnee its first loss of the season.

“Coming in, we addressed that with them, that obviously Alexa isn’t here anymore, and that these areas of our game needed to be addressed before the season started,” Powell said. “Part of our culture since I’ve been here has been taking pride in how we play defense … and limiting our opponent to one shot per possession and having a solid one-shot defense.”

Cherokee remains a team to look out for in South Jersey, despite the big-name departure of Therien. The program was fortunate this season to bring back four starters and multiple other players who saw important time last year that could help “cover the gaps” left from Therien’s loss, both offensively and defensively. 

“I’m really proud of this group and how they approach practice and games together … When you’re taking someone out of the lineup that averages 15 points and 12 rebounds per game, along with great defense, somebody’s got to make up for that, and these girls as a whole have done a great job of making it their own.

“I feel very fortunate to be coaching them.”

So far, Cherokee has allowed the fewest points in the Olympic Conference, averaging just under 30 per game during the team’s first nine matchups. According to senior Katie Fricker, it was slightly difficult at first getting started over the summer without Therien’s role on the floor. But as a team that returned plenty of varsity experience and a strong team chemistry, they were able to make an easy transition with some practice.

“It wasn’t like we were losing much experience, so that definitely helped us on the court when it comes to team chemistry and what coach Powell expects of us,” Fricker said. “We did have to change our mindset a little on the court with Alexa gone, because we obviously utilized her a lot while she was here. So now we needed us all to step up in different ways to kind of make up for that.”

After losing the opportunity to play in the state championship game two seasons ago because of COVID and a heavily modified season last year, Fricker said she and her team’s mentality is to win whatever they can, especially with it being Fricker’s senior year.

“We definitely want to win whatever we can to be honest — holiday tournaments, the SJIBT tournament and in the playoffs — and our coaches remind us almost every day to keep our eyes forward even after a win to keep us going,” Fricker said. “And winning those games in March are definitely our goal.” 

Junior Gabby Recinto still remembers vividly how difficult it was to have the state championship game taken away for reasons beyond the team’s control during her freshman year. But she  agrees the team is powered by a mission to get that chance back.

“I know for a lot of us, it was really upsetting my freshman year to see the state championship game get taken away, because that was a great opportunity for us,” Recinto said. “So I think this year, that’s one of our main focal points. I would love to get back in that situation.”

The way Cherokee can do that is to continue playing the stellar defense it is accustomed to. 

“Defense is our number-one priority,” Recinto said. “Yeah you can score however many points you want, but if you can’t play defense, you’re not going to win the game. We like turning defense into offense with back-to-back points; that’s honestly one of my favorite things to be honest, and we’re just always working on it because that’s how we believe we can best win games.”

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