CLIFTON PARK — The lack of outside expectations for the Shenendehowa girls’ basketball team motivated it throughout the 2016-17 season.
This season? Cat Almeida, Shenendehowa’s 6-foot-4 junior, said the Plainsmen are driven by the increased expectations around them.
“Who,” Almeida said, “wants to be the team that had really high expectations and didn’t live up to them?”
Finding motivation last season was easy for Shenendehowa. The program had lost nearly all its varsity roster from the prior season — one that ended in the state championship game — and entered the 2016-17 season with Alex Tudor, Cam Tooley and a bunch of question marks making up head coach Joe Murphy’s roster.
And ... Shenendehowa went 22-3, won another Section II championship and appeared in the state semifinals.
“Last year,” Tooley said, “we had that chip on our shoulder because nobody was rooting for us. We were the dark horse. Now, coming back, we’re trying to stay low.”
Good luck with that.
Besides the senior perimeter duo of Tooley and Tudor, the Plainsmen return the rest of their high-powered starting lineup with Almeida, and seniors Claire Drum and Megan Gillooley. The bench is well-stocked with players who have varsity experience, and newcomers such as talented freshman Meghan Huerter, a younger sister of brothers Kevin Huerter and Thomas Huerter who helped lead the school’s boys’ program to a state championship in 2015. Overall, the Plainsmen return 97.0 percent of their scoring from last season.
“We’re definitely ahead of schedule from last year,” said Murphy, whose team opens its season Tuesday at Troy in a Suburban Council matchup. “We got all the groundwork in last year.”
But that doesn’t mean this season’s Plainsmen start as a finished product. Meanwhile, the area’s large-school girls’ basketball scene includes a number of teams — such as Bethlehem, Saratoga Springs and Shaker — returning multiple starters from successful clubs last season.
“It’s a new season. The Suburban Council and Section II are very competitive and we can’t get complacent. We need to be ready to go every game, right away,” Tudor said. “That’s why we were successful last year. If we keep that up this year, we can be as successful — and hopefully more successful.”
Murphy said the Plainsmen aren’t talking about any aspirations that go beyond winning Tuesday’s season-opening game. The way his players improved during the offseason, though, makes winning a state tournament championship — which the Plainsmen have not done since 1999 — a realistic goal, even if he won’t look that far ahead.
“They all — literally — got better,” Murphy said. “They all committed to getting better, and they all got better.”
And no team inside of Section II likely boasts more individual talent than this season’s Plainsmen. Tudor’s committed to play Division I basketball at St. Francis College, Tooley’s set to play next season for Division II Le Moyne College and Almeida already has a variety of Division I offers. The strength of the Plainsmen’s personnel has helped keep things fresh and challenging throughout the preseason.
“We want to make each other better every day in practice and I think we’ve been doing that,” Tooley said.
Now, though, it’s time to get going beyond the practice court — something Murphy said his team’s been ready to do for quite some time.
“They’ve still got a good chip on their shoulders,” Murphy said. “They feel like they have a lot of unfinished business.”