READING, Ohio — Mount Notre Dame senior guard Laila Phelia can't wait to step onto the court today for the start of official girls basketball practice.
"Extremely hungry," Phelia said. "We have unfinished business right now. And we are so ready."
Seven months after the COVID-19 pandemic caused the Ohio High School Athletic Association to cancel the remaining winter sports tournaments, girls basketball teams are preparing for a new season while being mindful that change can happen at any moment.
"Everybody is ready to go," MND coach Dr. Scott Rogers said. "The kids want to play. They want to be together. That's a lifeline for a lot of these young ladies is their teams. It doesn't matter what sport. And they just want to be together. And I want them to be together and the coaches want to be together."
The OHSAA has COVID-19 guidance and recommendations for the winter season. Coaches understand teams need to adhere to the health and safety measures while being flexible with season schedules.
"This is the battle," Rogers said. "It's like the elephant in the room. And no matter what you got that stigma that, 'Well, you know is the next game going to go off?' And I think what everybody has to do is not worry. We can't control those things."
MND (28-0 in 2019-20), winners of 44 consecutive games, opens the season Nov. 21 against Royal Crown Academy (Toronto, Ontario) at the fifth annual Journey to the Tourney at Lakota West.
MND was ranked No. 1 nationally in the Blue Star Media Elite 25 girls basketball rankings last season. The Cougars were No. 3 nationally by ESPN and MaxPreps.
"They're going to have another spectacular year," said Journey to the Tourney director Bryce McKey.
While the Cougars prepare for a tough early schedule, they haven't forgotten about the memorable postseason tournament run this past March. Rogers said it took a significant amount of time for the players to get past the abrupt conclusion.
MND was a Division I state semifinalist but never made the trip to St. John Arena in Columbus after the OHSAA postponed the tournament.
The Cougars experienced a pep rally at school, but instead of making the trip north along Interstate 71, they played an intra-squad scrimmage instead.
Junior guard KK Bransford said the team understood the unique circumstances but said March is a motivating factor for this season.
"I would say very shocking, especially for the seniors," said Bransford.
"I know they were hurt because they didn't even have a chance to end their last year with like a big bang and I know they were planning on doing that, so I felt for them. And now this year, we're kind of dedicating this year to them because they didn't have the opportunity to do it."
Bransford and Phelia – rated among the nation's top players in their respective classes – are among the MND players who have been working out voluntarily at 6:15 a.m. twice a week in the school gym preparing for another journey.
They say the chemistry of this year's team is a special element to this preseason.
MND is also grateful to be playing basketball under the unique circumstances of this school year.
"We can't take a day lightly," said Phelia, who is verbally committed to Michigan. "We have to go hard every practice. We have to go practice like it's our last. We didn't see that coming last season, so we have to go out and go hard."