In coach’s 2nd season, Deer Lakes girls ready to make climb over .500 mark

Thursday, November 17, 2022 | 8:37 PM

Deer Lakes has only one thing in mind as another girls basketball season approaches — to come away with a winning record for the first time in three years.

Perhaps the time is ripe?

“We have the potential to be as good as anyone in the section,” said coach Sam Salih, who is entering his second year with the Lancers, who drop to Class 3A from 4A and will play in Section 3 alongside Apollo-Ridge, Burrell, Ligonier Valley, Mt. Pleasant and Shady Side Academy.

“We’ve got a few long trips to make. We’re familiar with some of our opponents, but some we don’t know much about at this point. It’s going to be a challenge, adjusting to a new section.”

Ligonier Valley and Mt. Pleasant, two schools in the easternmost portion of the WPIAL, potentially offer some treacherous trips for their opponents.

Nevertheless, Salih said: “Sometimes, it’s good to go on the road.”

Deer Lakes spent last year at the head of the second tier in Section 1-4A, a pod of five teams tasked with chasing heavyweights Knoch and Highlands. The Lancers’ 6-6 record in section games, tying them with Freeport for third place, was good enough for a WPIAL playoff spot in Salih’s first year as coach.

But Deer Lakes closed out their 8-12 overall record with a first-round loss for the third year in a row, bowing to Montour, 52-42.

“The girls have got to be committed,” Salih said. “I believe they are. They’re tough-minded. They’re hard workers. We need to stay focused on the intangibles — things like injuries, the chemistry we can develop as a team, our consistency in what we do. I’m excited for what our potential could be.”

Not since a 47-32 victory over Seton LaSalle in the first round of the 2019 WPIAL playoffs have the Lancers advanced in the postseason.

“It’s always tough when a new coach comes in and changes the style of play, but the girls did a good job of getting better as time went on,” said Salih, whose previous stop covered a three-year span as coach at Class A Greensburg Central Catholic, where his teams were 42-17 and reached the WPIAL playoff all three seasons. “We took some lumps and got hit in the mouth, but we battled.

“We have the potential this year to be as good as anyone in our section.”

Seniors Anna Bokulich and Jessica Sullivan, a pair of 5-foot-8 guard/forwards whom Salih referred to as “versatile and athletic,” return as starters from last season, while 6-foot junior forward Layne Loper saw plenty of time as a spot starter for the Lancers.

Salih said Loper has shown marked improvement during the offseason.

“She has the potential to hit a double-double at any time,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what she becomes as a junior.”

Others who could see plenty of playing time, Salih said, are 5-11 junior forward Alyssa Weber, 5-9 junior forward Nina Tristani, 5-9 sophomore forward Sophia Laurenza, 5-7 senior guard/forward Macy Parise, 5-6 senior guard Zoey Herbster and 5-4 senior guard Mia Kurtz.

Deer Lakes moves on without 1,000-point scorer Reese Hasley, a freshman point guard at Division III Grove City.

“There will be a drop-off where that’s concerned,” Salih said. “She was a good leader.”

But, Salih said Loper has an opportunity to move the focus to the center position, where he said she has the potential to excel after an offseason of travel ball and intense weight room sessions.

Deer Lakes opens the season Dec. 6 at Class 5A Hampton, followed by a home opener Dec. 8 against Class 4A Freeport.

“The reality here is we have a state championship and a WPIAL championship in this program. … It’s a standard, and that’s what we’re chasing,” Salih said. “We’ve got some talent from top to bottom, and it’s just a matter of cultivating it, building it and growing it.

“I’ve told the girls that last year was a year to get acclimated with having a new coach. But it’s not a honeymoon anymore. The honeymoon’s over. It’s for real now. We’re going to compete.”

At a glance

Coach: Sam Salih

Last year’s record: 8-12 (6-6 Section 1-4A)

Returning starters: Anna Bokulich (Sr., F/G), Jessica Sullivan (Sr., G/F)


More Basketball

Experienced assistant ready to move into head coaching role with Ligonier Valley boys
Valley turns to prominent basketball alumni to help restore luster to boys, girls programs
Armstrong’s Emma Paul named 2023-24 TribLive HSSN Girls Athlete of the Year
Mt. Pleasant’s Scott Giacobbi retires after 19 seasons coaching girls basketball
Newly hired boys basketball coach Brandon Sensor sees Shaler as ‘right opportunity’