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Jeune sisters play a team game

There's a drill that Holy Cross girls' basketball coach Fred Philipps often runs at the start of preseason. Its rules are as simple as its message.

There's a drill that Holy Cross girls' basketball coach Fred Philipps often runs at the start of preseason. Its rules are as simple as its message.

One player - and each player gets a turn - has to try to defend against five.

"It's one vs. five," Philipps said. "And usually that one player will find out that it doesn't work out too well: One player isn't going to accomplish anything by themselves."

With so much hype surrounding them, you'd think that would be a lesson well-learned for the Jeune sisters.

Aliyah Jeune, a 5-foot-11 freshman forward, and her sister Ashli, a 5-8 sophomore guard, are two of the more highly touted young players in the nation. Both already have committed to Rutgers. Aliyah committed in eighth grade; Ashli, as a freshman.

But according to Philipps, the ego that often is present in big-time college recruits is refreshingly absent from his two young stars.

"I think that, offensively and defensively, they've bought into the idea that it's a team game," Philipps said. "The thing that I see most of all is that these are dedicated kids. The whole team really works well together.

"Even though Ashli and Aliyah have been getting most of the accolades, they've been sharing the ball, and I think the team realized that we have five good players. One or two people can't carry us."

To watch the sisters practice together is to watch their relationship transition back and forth from teammates to sisters. Of course, as Philipps acknowledges, a sisterly relationship can't help but accompany some healthy competitiveness.

But even though they are quick to point to their competitiveness with each other, the sisters also insist that they're each other's biggest fan. And Ashli is determined to watch Aliyah make a smooth transition to the high school game, just as she did last season.

"I always give her advice," Ashli said. "On basketball, on life. I make sure she's where she needs to be on the court. I make sure she's taking good shots. And so far, it's worked out really well."

For Aliyah, expectations could hardly be any higher. At 5-11, she has the rare combination of size and shooting ability. Shooting guard is her natural position, although for many games, she will likely be the tallest player on the court. Philipps has her penciled in at small forward to start the season.

Ashli also combines size and touch. She's an excellent outside shooter and ball handler.

"I expect that most teams will play us zone," Philipps said. "And with their ability to shoot from the outside, I think it will open up the court for us."

The coach's biggest worry is the weight that expectations are putting on his team's shoulders.

"These are very young, young ladies," he said. "And I am a little anxious that they're going to try to live up to things that are unrealistic."

Talking to the two sisters, it's hard to tell there are any expectations at all. Off the court, the two are humble underclassmen. On the court, they look up to and take advice from the juniors and seniors.

"We try not to worry about the expectations that others put on us," Aliyah Jeune said. "I'm just going to try to go out there and play my game. That's all I can worry about, and that's all I can control.

"But as a freshman, I try not to be shy. I do try to be a leader."

Said Ashli Jeune: "I always tell her to adapt to the level of play, but don't change your game. Don't be afraid to take a shot. Just be yourself out there."

Those are just a few of the lessons that Ashli Jeune picked up in a freshman year in which, at times, the Lancers struggled to find an identity. The team was often bogged down by young mistakes, such as turnovers and missed assignments.

This season, Aliyah Jeune is the only player in Holy Cross' starting five without extensive varsity experience. Senior Amanda Offenback, a Monmouth recruit; sophomore point guard Alliya Butts; and senior center Jazzlyn Johnson round out the starting unit.

Butts is another Division I prospect, and Johnson is fielding Division II interest.

Together, the Lancers' starting five enters the season with as much promise as any team in South Jersey.

"We just want to make this season a year that our seniors remember," Ashli Jeune said. "Everyone is saying that Holy Cross is going to be big this year. But we're putting in the work every day at practice, putting in the extra hours, extra shots, and we're just hoping for the best."