Strong leaders have Sewickley Academy girls basketball on right track

Sunday, January 16, 2022 | 11:01 AM

Desirae Nance and Rinnie Jardini have something in common.

Both lead by example.

The two talented hoopsters led the Sewickley Academy girls basketball team to a successful 2-1 start in Section 1-2A this season.

Sewickley coach Mark Gaither is highly appreciative of having Nance and Jardini in leadership roles on this year’s team.

“They’ve both been a huge part of our success the past two seasons. Both will be counted on to lead this year as captains,” Gaither said. “We have an inexperienced team, and their game experience will be extremely valuable. We’ll need them to lead by example and be vocal in practices. And, of course, carry the bulk of our scoring.”

Nance is an athletic 5-foot-8 senior guard/forward who averaged close to 10 points last season. She netted 13 points against New Brighton in Sewickley’s section opener and was averaging a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) through five games this year.

“Des started every game for us as a sophomore,” Gaither said. “Then last year, she stepped aside so that all five seniors could start. With the covid year, we did not know what each week would look like. She’s had plenty of big games where she’s been a double-digit scorer and leading rebounder.

“Des can get to the hoop, she rebounds well and she goes hard all the time. She’s had many big games over the years.”

Nance owns a 3.46 GPA and participates in the African American Culture and Student Diversity Leadership clubs at SA. She also plays softball for the Panthers.

“My expectations for this season are to win our section and advance to the (WPIAL) championship,” Nance said. “It’s a different team with a different skillset. However, as we continue to get better as a team, we’ll achieve our goals.”

Jardini is a crafty 5-5 point guard and one of five juniors on the squad. She also scored 13 versus New Brighton and is averaging 10 points this season.

“Rinnie has also been a huge part of our success the past two seasons,” Gaither said. “Rinnie can handle the ball, run the offense and knock down 3s. Much like her older sister (J.J. Nance, SA’s starting point guard the past two seasons), she has an exceptional work ethic. She works hard every day and can be counted on to lead by example.

“Rinnie’s a heady point guard with good ball-handling skills but also a crafty scorer who has good range. She has tons of experience from the AAU world and has been a key part of the team since her freshman year.”

Jardini has a 4.0 GPA and also plays soccer and lacrosse at Sewickley. She participates in student government and the Global Studies program and has been playing the piano for 11 years.

“This team is pretty new, and we’ve already become a close-knit group,” Jardini said, “so this season is about translating that to game play. Individually, we have some talent. Virginia Gaither can shoot lights out, Desi Nance is a really skilled defender and ball handler and Maddy Miller and Olivia Jackson hold their own inside the paint. If we build on each other’s strengths, everything will fall into place. I can already see an improvement, and I’m excited to see what we can do with more experience.

“We know this is somewhat of a rebuilding year, and so everyone is focused on working together to grow both as individual players and as a team. Two of our team strengths are our positivity and camaraderie. And I am forever grateful to coach Gaither and the rest of the coaching staff for making this team feel like such a family.”

Sewickley finished 13-6 last season after posting an 8-2 record in Section 1-2A. Neshannock (10-2) and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (10-2) tied for first.

The Panthers reached the WPIAL semifinals the past two seasons but have had to replace five starters who graduated — guards J.J. Jardini, Hailey Drutarosky and Mia DelVecchio and forwards Kamryn Lightcap and Bre Warner.

“We had an opportunity to win a share of the section title last year as we split with both Neshannock and OLSH,” said Gaither, SA’s third-year coach. “Covid canceled our final two games versus New Brighton and Shenango, both of whom we had beaten early in the season.”

The SA girls clinched a playoff berth a year ago by winning four of their last five regular-season contests.

They have relied on Nance and Jardini to provide on-the-court leadership in the early part of this season.

“We are just focusing on growing as a team and getting better each practice,” Gaither said. “We obviously lost a lot to graduation last year but returned two solid leaders in Des and Rinnie. Both have played pivotal roles the past two seasons.

“The rest of us are learning and growing each day. Like many teams, we could not have a JV season last year, so that limited the game experience for our younger players. But we’re excited about this group, their work ethic and the improvements we are seeing each day.”

With Nance and Maddie Martin, a 5-6 forward, the only seniors on the squad, the Panthers have displayed early improvement and are keeping their eyes squarely on the future, as well.

“We hope to continue to get better each week and be playing our best basketball come February,” Gaither said.

Two juniors expected to complement the Panthers’ frontcourt play throughout this winter are Olivia Jackson, a 5-7 forward, and Maddie Miller, a 5-9 forward. Between them, they are pulling down 11 rebounds per game.

“Olivia is getting better each time she steps on the court and has become a strong inside presence with rebounding and post moves,” Gaither said. “Maddie brings another physical presence inside that complements the group.

“We’ve got some nice size, which has been one of our positives thus far.”

Sewickley is, in fact, well stocked with frontcourt players. Nance, Jackson, Miller and Martin can be joined by some combination of Laila Wade, a 5-7 junior, Lia Frazzini, a 5-8 sophomore, and Lauren Retzlaff, a 5-8 freshman.

Virginia Gaither, a 5-5 sophomore guard, is a newcomer to the lineup after transferring from Upper St. Clair. She pumped in 20 points, including four 3-pointers, in the season opener and is averaging 10 points and three steals.

“Virginia is getting more comfortable each game and is really shooting the ball well,” her dad said.

Two other backcourt players are Jaeden Dorsett, a 5-5 junior, and Layla Lombardo, a 5-4 sophomore.

“We’re looking good and getting better each game,” SA’s veteran floor boss said. “We learned a lot in our first game with Serra and battled in a tight game up until the closing minutes.”

It appears defending WPIAL champion Neshannock is the team to beat in the section. After 10 games. the Lancers were 3-0 in section play and 9-1 overall.

Sewickley defeated Shenango, 32-28, and Ellis School, 54-35, in early January to go to 2-1 in the section and 3-2 overall. Jardini (17) and Gaither (12) accounted for 29 points against Ellis. Gaither did all of her scoring from 3-point range.


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