Nancy O'Neill is entering her 19th season as Collingswood's girls' basketball coach with 313 victories.

Despite all the success, the losses still hurt. And we're not talking about those on the scoreboard.

O'Neill is always optimistic, but she is hurting this preseason because three words that no coach or any team wants to see have cropped up frequently at Collingswood - anterior cruciate ligament.

This was a Collingswood team that had good reason for optimism heading into October: An experienced group was back from a unit that last year went 16-11.

Then in a matter of a month, O'Neill lost three projected starters for the season with ACL injuries.

Senior Nadirah Robinson, who averaged 19.3 points per game, suffered her injury in the third week of October playing basketball.

The next week, sophomore Courtney Carsillo suffered the same fate while playing basketball. Then in the first week of November, senior Anna Foote became the third player lost to an ACL injury, this one while playing soccer.

Robinson had her operation on Nov. 5. Foote and Carsillo will undergo surgery on Dec. 23.

"I've never had anything like this," said O'Neill, still sounding a little shell-shocked by it all.

In September, O'Neill was feeling very good about this year's team. When practice began the day after Thanksgiving, she continued to show optimism, working with the youngsters she has, seeing positive signs.

"The kids have done a really good job and are really working hard," O'Neill said.

What's been most impressive has been attendance at practice by Robinson, Foote, and Carsillo.

"The three injured players show up every day, encouraging the players," O'Neill said.

When a youngster can no longer perform, yet still offers as much as possible to help the team, it's a truly admirable trait.

Nobody feels good about the extended injury list, but the youngsters and O'Neill are making the best of the situation.

Now Collingswood has just two players with extensive experience returning: sophomore point guard Ellie O'Neill, daughter of the coach, and senior forward Beth Labar.

This will be a Collingswood team that will again show the fighting spirit of its coach, but in many instances it will be earning on-the-job training.

It's possible O'Neill could field a lineup that at times has four sophomores and Labar on the floor. All this while competing in a Colonial Conference Liberty Division that includes heavyweights Haddonfield and Sterling.

And it's a year that Sterling, at least on paper, appears ready to match up favorably with the best teams not only in the Colonial, but South Jersey.

So even at full strength, things would not have been very easy for Collingswood in the Colonial Liberty. Now the Panthers must improvise with a depleted lineup.

"It's a different spot than any of us have ever been," O'Neill said.

Youngsters are a resilient group, and at Collingswood they are no doubt making the best of a difficult situation. It's a situation made slightly easier by three injured teammates who have continued to do everything possible to help the Panthers win, a true testament of their character and commitment.