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Defending-champion Wood girls face a challenge

Archbishop Wood posted a 26-5 record last season and won the PIAA Class AAA girls' basketball championship.

Archbishop Wood posted a 26-5 record last season and won the PIAA Class AAA girls' basketball championship.

With 14 out of the 15 players who made up that team coming back, Wood fans might consider this season to be a breeze. Don't tell that to coach Jim Ricci.

He says the first big issue facing his team is surviving in the perennially strong Catholic League. The Vikings have to get through that minefield before looking to the playoffs.

"Archbishop Carroll and Cardinal O'Hara are still around," Ricci said when asked about the Catholic League race. "I believe they have won 15 out of the last 17 [league] championships between them."

Last season it was Carroll's turn, and the Patriots beat Wood in both the regular season and in the league title game. Wood got its revenge later in the PIAA playoffs.

"We had a great run to the state championship, which takes good players, but the luck of the draw is also a factor," Ricci said. "If you have a bad day in the playoffs, you're done."

Sam Greenfield is the only player gone from that team.

Leading the list of returnees are seniors Steph Keyes, Cait McCartney, Tori Arnao, Grace Mirack, Jenna Swope, Christine Verrelle, and Aubrey Howland. Laura Nealon, a 5-foot-10 junior who played a key role in the run to the PIAA championship, is also among the returnees.

"Steph is probably our best shooter," Ricci said. "She averaged about 11 points a game. The others averaged about eight. Laura was our leading scorer in two of our four state games."

Wood, ranked No. 1 in The Inquirer's preseason poll, was scheduled to get a test Friday night against No. 2 Germantown Academy, but the game was canceled because the Wood football team plays that night in the Class AAA playoffs.

Instead, the basketball team will board a bus Sunday for a trip to play La Salle Academy of Rhode Island in West Islip, N.Y.

"We don't know anything about them but it should be a good test for us," said Verrelle who was a member of the Wood girls' soccer team that went to the PIAA final.

The team is expected to miss Greenfield's leadership and energy. Ricci has used several players at her guard spot in scrimmages.

"Sam was a major part of the team," Verrelle said. "We'll just have to pick up her intensity."

According to Verrelle, all the excitement over the football team's run in the state playoffs has not been a distraction to the basketball team.

"No, it hasn't," chimed in the coach who watched the football team play Friday night in the cold. Both of Wood's soccer teams made it to the state finals.

"The more our teams get into the playoffs, the better for the school," Ricci said.