Cathedral, the two-time defending Division 4 girls’ basketball champion, certainly has set the bar high.
But with the departure of six players — headlined by Masseny Kaba, the Globe’s Division 4 Player of the Year, coach Clinton Lassiter said that the 2017-18 season will be one of transition.
“It’s a drastic adjustment,” he said.
“Losing six players means we lose leadership, we lose experience and now basically having a new team, we have three eighth graders [Ciana Gibson, Sophia Fontain, Tayla Barros] who’ll be playing prominent roles and will have to learn on the fly.”
Yet his Panthers have been impressive early on. In the opener, they cruised past Cardinal Spellman, 101-49. On Tuesday night, they rolled to 4-0 with an 86-51 victory over reigning Division 2 finalist Arlington Catholic.
The 6-foot-3 Kaba was the focal point of the Panther attack at both ends of the court. Her length and athleticism gave Cathedral the chance to get out in transition early and often. It also also allowedCathedral to play aggressive defense, knowing that there was a rim protector in the paint.
Eliminating defensive lapses has been a focal point since the start of preseason workouts.
And minus Kaba, now starting as a freshman at Central Florida, more responsibility will fall on junior guard Dejah Jenkins, already a 1,000-point career scorer, and Mackenzie Daleba, a sophomore forward who started last season as a reserve but finished as the team’s leading scorer (17.7 ppg).
The 6-foot Daleba was a force in the paint, swallowing up offensive boards and running the floor to convert easy layups in transition. She also showcased the ability to drill the occasional jumper, or grab a defensive rebound and go baseline to baseline for a score.
And now after a busy offseason of ball, Daleba can drain a jumper from long range with an improved handle.
“You’ll probably see Mackenzie all over the place,” said Lassiter.
“She’ll be a center sometimes, she’ll be a wing sometimes, she’ll be a point guard sometimes.”
In the offseason, Daleba played for the Boston Showstoppers, an AAU squad coached by Lassiter. She credits the experience — which included traveling to tournaments in Atlanta, Kentucky, North Carolina, and New York — for helping her understand the game from a different perspective.
Senior forward Taliyah Countrymon, one of Daleba’s closest friends on and off the court, has been impressed with Daleba’s development after playing alongside her during the AAU season.
“I love Mackenzie,” said Countrymon, the team’s lone senior.
“We’re very close on the court and off the court, and I feel like I’m an older sister to her, I feel like we relate a lot. The stuff that she goes through now, I’ve already been through, so I can help try to put her in better positions and just lead by example.”
Countrymon, who has suited up for the Showstoppers since eighth grade, said that being able to play with teammates such as Daleba and Dejah Jenkins year-round is a plus for team chemistry and skills development.
The AAU experience, and playing against athletes who are bigger, faster and at times, more talented, has given her more confidence in her ability to dominate this season.
“Looking at my game before, its not the same as it is now,” she said.
“I’m more confident in shooting the ball now, bringing it up, handling the ball and viewing the court differently as well, not just from a center’s perspective, but from an all-around player’s perspective.”
Daleba, who is already attracting interest from a number of college programs, including Boston College, is well aware of the expectations for the Panthers this season.
And in her mind, Cathedral is still the team to beat.
“I believe that my team has the ability to do the same thing we did last year, which is win another championship.
“Even though we lost six really good players, I feel like we’re all going to step up as a team and we know what needs to get done.”