The Villa Maria Academy girls' basketball team doesn't open its season until Thursday, almost a week later than most PIAA member schools, but the later start doesn't bother coach Kathy McCartney.

"It's more important what you do in February than in December," said McCartney whose Hurricanes are a strong favorite to win the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies championship.

]Three starters return from a Hurricanes squad that finished 25-7 last season and won a District 1 Class AAA title along the way.

Villa defeated longtime AACA rival and eventual PIAA champion Mount St. Joseph for the district title.

Leading the list of returnees from a team that lost to the Magic in the state semifinals are Erin Mann, a 6-foot-1 senior, and Ellen Cannon, a 5-6 junior.

McCartney said she has capable players to add to the mix, including Sera Berlacher, Erin McHugh, Laura Zarkoski, Sarah Zwaan, Katie Anthony, Bri Ford and Brooke Angelos.

"They're all solid kids," said McCartney, who said several teams should be in the league race. "Mount St. Joe should be tough. St. Basil came on strong at the of last season, and Nazareth should in the mix.

At Mount St. Joseph, John Miller took the Magic (29-3) to the state title in his third season as coach.

Even though three starters, including all-state point guard Lauren Johnson, are gone, the cupboard is not bare. Johnson is now playing for Princeton.

"It's safe to say that we have some talent returning," Miller said. "Our schedule is challenging,."

Miller will look to 5-10 Elle Hagedorn and Jen Sabia for leadership. Both are seniors. Hagedorn, a starter since she was a sophomore, is headed to Harvard.

"You don't fill a first-team all-state pick's shoes quickly," Miller said, referring to Johnson. "Certainly the makeup of this team will be different, but I think we'll be competitive."

Jen Smith begins her second season at St. Basil hoping her team can pick up on a strong second half last year. The Panthers finished 12-9.

Senior Carolyn Edwards, a 6-0 wing player, along with senior guard/forward Siobhan O'Donnell and junior wing Mary Ellen McCollum, give the Panthers a trio of experienced hands.

Nazareth has good height with seniors Carleigh Brown (6-1), Leah Kuczynski (6-0), and Melissa Kudzman (6-1).

Contact staff writer Don Beideman at 610-696-2652 or dbeideman@phillynews.com.