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A Reloading Year in Thetford

New-Look, First-Place Panthers Fill Holes Quickly

  • The Thetford Academy girls basketball team practices yesterday at the TA gymnasium. The Panthers are in first place in the Vermont Division III standings. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    The Thetford Academy girls basketball team practices yesterday at the TA gymnasium. The Panthers are in first place in the Vermont Division III standings. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thetford’s Erika Gray, left, and Kayley Gray warm up at the start of practice yesterday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Thetford’s Erika Gray, left, and Kayley Gray warm up at the start of practice yesterday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thetford girls basketball assistant coach Jade Huntington works with the Panthers’ Lydia Leitschuh during practice yesterday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Thetford girls basketball assistant coach Jade Huntington works with the Panthers’ Lydia Leitschuh during practice yesterday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Thetford Academy girls basketball team practices yesterday at the TA gymnasium. The Panthers are in first place in the Vermont Division III standings. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Thetford’s Erika Gray, left, and Kayley Gray warm up at the start of practice yesterday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Thetford girls basketball assistant coach Jade Huntington works with the Panthers’ Lydia Leitschuh during practice yesterday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Thetford — After losing four of five starters and more than 60 percent of last year’s scoring production to both graduation and transfers, the Thetford Academy girls basketball team was expected to have lots of questions this season. Instead, the Panthers have had all the answers.

Despite injury trouble that has only compounded its personnel shuffle, Thetford is 11-3 and in first place in the Vermont Division III standings. The Panthers are unbeaten in their own division, their three losses coming against D-II opponents in 10-1 Union-32 (by one point), 8-4 Montpelier (in overtime) and defending champion Hartford (10-3).

Thetford won its other four games against D-II foes, beating 8-5 Lamoille twice along with .500 Harwood and winless Lyndon.

In D-III, the Panthers have defeated second-place, neighboring rival Rivendell twice — handing the 10-win Raptors their only two losses — to avenge last year’s playoff loss while taking care of sub-.500 foes Randolph, Winooski, Peoples and Oxbow.

Entering the final half-dozen games of the regular season, Thetford appears poised for the No. 1 seed and, potentially, a deep run in the upcoming postseason. The Panthers will be gunning for their second straight trip to Barre Auditorium, where they lost to the eventual state champion Olympians in the semifinals last season.

Thetford hopes to reach the final for the first time since 2005 and vie for the program’s first-ever state championship.

“I think we have a good chance to get to the finals,” said sophomore Michaela Pomeroy (9.4 points per game), the team’s second leading scorer and one of their strongest defenders. “The fact that we’ve beaten teams like Rivendell and Oxbow, that really got our adrenaline going and gave us some confidence.”

Getting to this point has been a process for the Panthers, who retained only junior point guard Shyann Josler from last year’s starting five. A two time Dream Dozen selection as one of the state’s top upperclassmen, Josler led the team with 10.5 points per game last year, but their next two leading scorers, juniors Jillian Clark (7.4 ppg) and Abigail Welch (6.7) transferred. Caitlyn Pippin (6.7) and Linsey Borst (4.2), among others, graduated.

Despite limited varsity experience from this year’s group, it has brought plenty of enthusiasm. Other than Josler, a starter since her freshman season, only junior Ella Chapman had played in every game last year. Pomeroy is the only other player who saw action in as many as half of last year’s contests.

“Obviously, we’re a completely different team this year,” Ward said. “Last year entering the season, we thought we could be good because of the talent that we had, and we did have a good season. This year, with an entirely new team, we didn’t really know what to expect.

“But even though we might have been a little more talented last year, this year’s team has done a little more with what we have, learning on the fly. We’ve worked hard and a lot of the girls coming up from jayvee have done a great job. One of the things we have going for us is that a lot of the girls came in with their fundamentals down pat. They played basketball in Thetford Youth Sports and some of them have played AAU ball, so with knowing the basics, that’s big because it allows us to execute that much better.”

Five-foot-11 sophomore Rozzlyn Kidder has stood out, scoring 7.2 points per game starting at center in place of the injured Chapman, who was lost for the season with an ACL tear at Hartford in the fifth game of the season.

Thetford’s defense is allowing just 33 points per game — four fewer than last season — with Pomeroy and Josler the biggest pests in the Panthers’ press.

Josler is scoring a career-best 12.7 ppg, including a 31-point night in the one-point home loss to U-32. Yet Josler’s defense may provide the biggest spark.

“Shyann’s someone who can get 10 steals in a game, and the rest of the team really feeds off that,” Ward said. “She’s a playmaker. Offensively, she’s someone who can score 20 points a night. She’s taking better shots this year and I have a feeling that she’s going to have a strong finish to this season.”

As a unit, the Panthers could stand to shoot more to help increase their offensive production. Putting up less than 46 shots per game, they’re averaging 42 points per contest, five fewer than last season.

Josler, a co-captain, would like to see the team take better advantage of its open looks and not hold the ball as much

“Last year, we were taking 60-70 shots per game, so we need to be more aggressive,” she noted. “If we can do that, we’ll be much better.”

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