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Reloaded, Refocused: Marauders Already on All Cylinders as Preseason Begins

  • The Hanover girls basketball team works on dribbling during their practice at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 25, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    The Hanover girls basketball team works on dribbling during their practice at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 25, 2013.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lexi Hamilton practices dribbling with two balls during the Hanover girls basketball practice at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 25, 2013. Hamilton, a top scorer for the Marauders last year, is back for this season. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Lexi Hamilton practices dribbling with two balls during the Hanover girls basketball practice at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 25, 2013. Hamilton, a top scorer for the Marauders last year, is back for this season.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Hanover girls basketball team works on dribbling during their practice at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 25, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Lexi Hamilton practices dribbling with two balls during the Hanover girls basketball practice at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 25, 2013. Hamilton, a top scorer for the Marauders last year, is back for this season. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Hanover — With the return of sharpshooting guards JJ Daniell and Lexi Hamilton, it’s no secret the Hanover High girls basketball team will carry one of the best back c ourts in NHIAA Division II this season. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, they’ll have a lot more than those two to contend with.

After a few mediocre years — by their standards — the Marauders have refocused and recharged for the coming season. They bring back four of five starters from last year’s 15-7 team and, most importantly, the entire team appears to have improved in both skill and physical strength.

From springtime AAU to weekly open gym sessions and devoted weight training, this year’s offseason was a busy one for Hanover.

“I’ve been in the program 19 years (six as an assistant), and I’ve never had a team come into the season this focused and committed,” said coach Dan O’Rourke, whose team won the last of its five titles in 2008. “(Monday) was the first practice of the year, and it might have been the most intense and dedicated one I’ve ever seen.”

After being outmuscled at times last season, much of the team worked on strength and conditioning with Lebanon-based personal trainer Wayne Burwell and on their own. The idea is to have a more physical presence up-and-down the floor.

“We’re a smaller team (compared to some opponents). We’ve even been called ‘twiggy,’ ” said senior forward Molly Cornell. “We had to kind of beat the odds last season, but I think all of the weight lifting is going to help. It was pretty awesome, the turnout we had.”

Open gyms during the summer and fall routinely attracted up to 15 players, O’Rourke added.

“They really took it upon themselves to get better. The conditioning, in particular, had nothing to do with me,” the coach said. “That’s what makes this team so exciting is that they’re clearly dedicated.”

That includes the dynamic backcourt tandem of Hamilton and Daniell, each of whom averaged double figures in scoring last year when Hamilton was a freshman and Daniell a sophomore. Both played high-level AAU ball in the spring before joining in on the team workouts.

“They’re both highly skilled, but for a sophomore and junior they also have a lot of experience at this point,” O’Rourke said. “They’re both very team-oriented players.”

Hamilton averaged 12.6 points per game last year and Daniell 11.1. Co-captain Holly Schlosser, now a senior, contributed 8.1 as the Marauders scored 56.5 points per game, almost 19 points higher than their production in 2011-12, when they went 11-11.

“The funny thing about last year is that for the first three or four weeks, all we did was focus on offense and we started the year 0-3 because we were giving up 60 points per game,” O’Rourke recalled. “For the next month, we spent 90 percent of our practices working on defense, and we went 15-3 over the rest of the (regular) season.”

Hanover lost 47-43 at Merrimack Valley in the first round of the D-II tourney, its third opening-round playoff loss in four seasons since reaching the 2009 final. This year’s team knows it has a long way to go to approach that kind of success, but Marauder captains Cornell and Schlosser think the unit’s strong chemistry this year will help them get there.

“I can see it in (my teammates’) eyes that we’re ready to take the next step,” said Schlosser. “The idea is to work as hard as we can every day in practice and to feed off each other as best we can. Everyone on this team tries to set each other up.”

Hamilton, the team’s point guard, has such a pass-first mentality that O’Rourke would like to see her shoot a bit more.

“That’s something we’re working on, just because she’s such an unselfish player,” O’Rourke said. “She has a good thing going with JJ, but everyone knows we have a great backcourt and they’re going to be the focal point (of opposing defenses).

“So the biggest thing for us could be the improvement of all of our other returners — girls like Eileen Daley, Holly Schlosser, Cathleen Beliveau, Stephanie Hinck, Molly Cornell and Christine Croituro. You can’t ignore those kids anymore because they’ve all developed. They’ve played a lot of basketball.”

The season opens on Dec. 13 at home against Hollis-Brookline.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.