The Chester girls' basketball team won the Del-Val League by four games last season and came one win away from playing in the PIAA state tournament.
But after the graduation of four players, including three starters, Del-Val opponents might be tempted discount Chester this year.
"Even though I graduated four seniors, most of my go-to players last year were underclassmen," said Chester coach Marvin Dukes, who will start two seniors, two juniors, and a sophomore in today's season opener at Germantown Academy.
"I'm definitely looking at it as a rebuilding year compared to last year, however . . . our biggest asset is having returning players who played an integral part in our success in the playoffs last year."
Chester finished 17-6 overall and 8-0 in the Del-Val last season. Their closest rivals in the league were Academy Park and Chichester, both at 4-4.
Chester lost in the second round of the District 1 playoffs to Upper Darby, 68-50, but beat Council Rock South in the loser's bracket and would have reached the state tournament were it not for a 52-48 defeat to Abington.
"Our players are definitely anxious," Dukes said. "The playoff push we had last season was really an exciting point for them. Over the years, we haven't made it that far with some pretty good talent and running a pretty good program. But I believe last year kind of set the tone for us going into this year."
The Clippers welcome back their leading scorer, 5-foot-6 senior shooting guard Malika Staples, and 6-0 senior guard/forward Karen Flagg, who Dukes said has received interest from several mid-major schools and area colleges, including La Salle.
Staples and Flagg will be the only seniors in virtually a five-guard starting lineup. Junior LaQueena Ferguson (5-9) will guard the small or power forward; junior guard Georria Clark (5-6), and sophomore guard Janera Handy (5-3) round out the starting five.
Dukes, who enters his eighth year in the Chester program and his fourth as the girls' varsity coach, said he has gone with five guard lineups in the past, but never used it has his go-to.
"This is probably the first year among a lot of years that we are very guard strong," Dukes said.
The coach likes the problems such a lineup presents for opposing defenses, such as the athletic Flagg facing other teams' less mobile centers.
"Karen plays a lot on the post being 6-foot tall, so the advantage is she's been known to create a lot of mismatches in our offense," Dukes said. "In our offense, she might be a 4/5, but who's guarding her is the other team's center, as opposed to a guard. So she can put the ball on the floor."
Then there is the diminutive Handy, who saw significant playing time last season as a freshman and plays beyond her years to join Clark as the Clippers' floor leaders.
"Janera will be the little spark plug, having the knowledge of being around last year and having the heart of a 7-footer," Dukes said. "In big games last year, she came through with her hustle and effort even though she was a freshman."
Chester will need Handy and the other starters with experience to step up from the beginning, both in conference play and nonconference play.
Aside from the Del-Val, where Dukes sees a young Penn Wood team improving to challenge Chester, the Clippers will face GA of the Inter-Academic League, Norristown of the Suburban One American, and Central, the reigning Class AAAA Public League champion.
"With our experience alone, we will pull things together and come together when need be," Dukes said. "We play a pretty heavy schedule, so we definitely don't have time to have a lapse. It should be interesting from the gate."