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Staff photo / Neel Madhavan Freedom guard Aaliyah Foster goes lay-up during a practice session earlier this month. Foster is expected to be a key contributor for the Leopards this season after averaging 15.8 points per game last season.

LIBERTY – After their first district title in program history, expectations remain high for the Liberty girls heading into this season.

“Our goal is definitely to maintain what we achieved last year,” said head coach Deidre Watson. “We definitely want to try to win a championship title and a district title again. We have a rotation of eight which I rotated last year. We don’t have a JV program which hurts the program (overall) but we are still motivated and ready to go.”

Despite losing in the Division III regional semifinals, Watson believes the experience the Leopards gained in the playoffs last year was invaluable and offers something for the team to build on this year.

“To see what it takes to win, to have that experience – I think it was invaluable for the girls.” said Watson. “We talked about it late last year. We now know what it takes to win. (At the time) the venue was big and it was our first time there so I think we were like a deer in the headlights at times. But if we go back there, this time we are ready.”

The main reason for Liberty’s high expectations is that it brings back the trio responsible for 77 percent of their goals from last season.

Seniors Demi Watson, Aaliyah Foster and Cianna Smith are back to lead the Leopards. However, Smith is expected to miss much of the regular season after sustaining an ACL injury during a traveling tournament in August.

Deidre said they hope to have her back in time for the playoffs by February. Smith averaged 14 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game last season.

“We still have a great germ cell” said Deidre. “We have very experienced players who know the program and know what is important. Aaliyah and Demi were role models for the rest of the team, showing them the style of basketball and what it takes to win.”

If Smith is out, the burden will likely fall on Demi and Foster, at least for most of the regular season. Demi led the Leopards with 16.4 points per game last year while Foster averaged 15.8 points.

“It’s funny, (Demi) and I had a conversation, she said sophomore year, which was the COVID year, it was practically the same team. So what was the difference between sophomore year and junior year (last year)?” said Deidre. “I said now you know how to win and how to build on it. That gives us experience. You saw different situations. Now we have the talent and the experience.”

Juniors Mia Parker and Kylee Thomas are also returning to the Leopards’ rotation. The pair averaged about two points a game last season.

Deidre said she’s looking for sophomores Mia Benjamin and Armani Franklin, who would also have a bigger role this year.

“They’re pretty committed to the program, so I expect them to do great things.” said Deidre.

In practice, the Leopards have so far focused on continuing to build team chemistry, especially in the absence of lynchpin point guard Smith.

“For me, the point guard has always been the heart and soul of offense” said Deidre. “The attempt to redefine this position and circumvent it to further develop chemistry has made good progress. I’m happy with what we’ve seen so far. We still have a lot to do in the early season but I think we should be where we want to be at the right time.”

But it’s been difficult in the last few days because Liberty were also without three other players this week, all of whom, according to Deidre, were ill with the flu. It forced the cancellation of the Leopards’ scheduled season opener against Austintown Fitch on Friday. Instead, Liberty is scheduled to open its season on Monday.

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