Angola will enter the 2021-22 season fresh off a championship run. That has to encouraging for second year Hornet head coach Nick Burlingame and his group. Finding a way through the NECC last season was like walking through a field of land mines with so many good teams. Angola found ways to succeed in the big moments, including capturing a Sectional title, posting a 19-6 record and also a NECC Tournament title in the midst of an 11-game winning streak.
There is one caveat: Hanna Knoll is gone, off to play at Central Michigan and now the Hornets must find ways to maneuver around that vacancy while also making up for her loss on the statistical end.
“It is really difficult to just replace someone of Hanna’s caliber but you do it from a team concept and that is one thing that we have,” Burlingame said.
The future looks to a senior, but one who has always been a future for this program. Lauren Leach broke in on the varsity level as a freshman and has seen the program from many different angles. Yes, she will want to improve on her 9.5 points and seven rebounds per game from last season, but her leadership will be equally important. Leach has seen different leaders come through the program in her time and the successes and failures each of them has had.
“We will look for Lauren to be a little bit more aggressive offensively and look for her shot a little bit more,” Burlingame said.
Right there with her are two sophomores who made a splash as freshmen in Riley Pepple and Kylie Caswell.
“Riley is a fantastic shooter and someone who has spent a ton of time in the gym this offseason,” Burlingame said. “Kylie was a really good defender for us last year and someone who could handle the ball pretty well and now she is someone who is going to bring an extra piece to that scoring.”
Last year in the preseason, Burlingame was hesitant to mention the freshman class much. Sure, there was a ton of hype but they were still unproven. He was focused on starting the year with a more experienced lineup. Eventually, and it didn’t take long, the pair showed just how varsity ready they could be.
Pepple ended up averaging 6.5 points per game and was relied on a lot in the second half of the season.
“I wanted them to just feel comfortable. I didn’t want them to feel like ‘we have to come in and just be great from the get go.’ They were going to go through some ups and downs being young and they just continued to stay the course and have just played such a huge role for us already,” Burlingame said.
Behind his big three players, Burlingame thinks the Hornets will utilize five more players consistently, headed by the junior class of Jaylen Fee and Tyra Stillman as two girls that work really hard. Stillman will be critical with her length on the defensive end while Fee will be a good spot up shooter.
The rest of the sophomore class will see some increased need this season as well. Macy Oberlin will provide a lot of athleticism and be a rim protector on the defensive end. Leah Snyder will be someone Burlingame looks for to handle the intangibles of the game as a workhorse for the Hornets and lead their competitive edge.
This year’s freshman class is again solid. Lexi Stillman will be the one who is likely most called upon early from that group.
“Lexi is probably the best overall athlete that we have in our program. Talk about speed and length and ability to jump,” Burlingame said. “We are really hard to guard at times because we have girls that can get to the rim, we have girls that can shoot it. They’ve really bought in and we are excited to get going.”
Angola has a ton of talent and it is led by a Class of 2024 that is really talented. The Hornets proved that they weren’t going to drop off under a new coach last year and that means we don’t expect them to drop off from the top of the NECC now. They have a good group that attacks hard, plays solid defense and know how to win. Even the young girls got the winning experience last season and it should carry over.
“The girls have really bought in. It’s not too different, we want to play fast, we want to get up and down, we want to compete on the defensive side,” Burlingame said. “We switched up…the offense is a little different than it has been in the past and the girls have really embraced that change. The way we want to play, we want to get downhill and really attack people.”
WHY NOT HIGHER
The loss of Hanna Knoll looms. And we get it, the Hornets are not focused on that at all and they shouldn’t be. This team has its own identity and will build from there. But for the rest of us watching, it is important. Arguably the best player in program history is gone.
Before, during the Knoll era, we didn’t have to question where Angola would get a ton of scoring from or where they would get that key bucket from. It was always Knoll. Until we know who does it or how that void is filled, there are going to be some question marks around the Hornets.
November 23 vs. Garrett
This is a no brainer and you can count potential NECC Tournament and Sectional rematches with the Railroaders in this same vein. All roads to 2021-22 success for either team run through each other. Angola won this battle 2 out of 3 times last year which will give them a boost of confidence but also mean they will be getting Garrett’s best effort.
Is Angola can win this first game, so early on in the season, it is a monumental way to propel them to potential titles down the line.
Riley Pepple, sophomore
Her shooting is no joke and it is a game changer for the Hornets. Pepple is going to get keyed on much more as a sophomore so her ability to create her own shot and escape defenses without the ball could really help Angola go.
Once she has that clearance, Pepple can be a game changer as one of the most lethal three point shooters in the NECC.