Falling just shy of a national championship last season, Long Island Lutheran girls basketball is looking to stay on top after receiving a No. 1 national ranking entering the campaign. NewsdayTV's Jolie Katzen reports. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Long Island Lutheran girls basketball team were both the hunters and the hunted last season. But after receiving the preseason No. 1 ranking in national high school girls basketball polls by ESPN and MaxPreps, the Crusaders understand this winter will bring along a whole new set of challenges.

LuHi entered last season unranked in some of the most prominent national polls. The Crusaders were able to use that as motivation to prove others wrong. But this year, they are the measuring stick all other teams around the country will look to compare themselves to.

“Last year, coming in, no one really had their eyes on us,” said Savannah Swords, a sophomore forward. “But this year, it’s all focused on us. There’s definitely less room for error. Coach [Christina Raiti] always preaches [that] for everyone else, playing against us is like their Super Bowl and we have to give them our best shot just like they are going to be giving us their best shot every time.”

LuHi had that Super Bowl moment last year. The Crusaders defeated Sidwell Friends School of Washington, D.C., then the No. 1 team in the country, during their run toward winning the Nike Tournament of Champions near Christmas. Following that tournament victory, LuHi climbed to the No. 1 spot in the country.

But the Crusaders didn’t remain there for long. LuHi lost its second game as the No. 1 team and then dropped its home opener to Montverde Academy a week later. They fell from No. 1 in the ensuing rankings.

“I’ll be honest, I think at points last year we weren’t necessarily ready for everything that happened,”  Raiti said. “It was one of those things where you kind of hit the ground running and maybe our basketball was there, but our mental [approach] wasn’t really there. So a big thing we focused on this year is what that means and what that looks like and also having the understanding and mentality that we haven’t earned it yet.”

Long Island Lutheran finished 23-3 last year, winning the state Federation Class AA title and were one of four girls basketball teams invited to GEICO Nationals. LuHi won its semifinal before falling again to Montverde Academy, 60-54, in the championship game.

That loss has been at the forefront of the Crusaders’ minds throughout the offseason. Although their season was filled with highs, it ended on a low. LuHi returns its entire starting five from last season, along with key pieces off the bench. The continuity of the team’s core separates them from other top schools in the country, helping them earn the No. 1 spot in America.

“I feel like we are really focused,” said Diora Ressaissi, a senior forward. “We don’t want to go out like we did last year at GEICO Nationals, so that’s our title. That’s the end goal and we’re working every day toward that. And we want to be undefeated, too, so we’re putting in the work.”

The Crusaders appear to have the talent to make that a possibility. They have only 10 players on their roster, but all 10 are either committed, or on track, to play college basketball. They have four of the 100 best high school seniors in the country, according to ESPN. Forward Shy Hawkins (No. 72) is committed to Syracuse. Guards Kayleigh Heckel (No. 28) is committed to USC and Syla Swords (No. 11) is committed to Michigan. Center Kate Koval, Newsday’s Player of the Year last year and a Notre Dame commit, is ranked No. 5 in the country.

“This team is so locked in, top to bottom,” Raiti said. “They’re kids that want to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves and that makes a huge difference.”

The returning talent is a stark contrast from the beginning of last season when Koval was the only starter from the year before. Despite the team coming together last year from all different parts of the state, country, and even across the world, it didn’t take long to see the talent in the gym.

“Last year we were kind of a whole bunch of people coming from different places, not knowing where we were going to fit in with other schools in the country,” Savannah Swords said. “And now just being able to build off what we had from last year and not starting from scratch is really helpful.”

Ressaissi is a three-year varsity player at LuHi and one of the longest-tenured players on the team. When she enrolled as a sophomore, LuHi was known as a strong program in the area. But not nearly the national power it has turned into over the last two years.

“When I first got here, we were kind of the underdogs and no one really knew about us,” Ressaissi said. “I feel like we grew a lot last year when we beat the No. 1 team in the country at the time and we really showed the country that we’re not just a small school from New York." 

Olivia Jones took notice.

The guard averaged 17.3 points per game as an eighth grader for the Brentwood varsity team. She could have remained there for her four high school years and put up dominant numbers. But instead, she transferred to LuHi last year for her freshman season and averaged less than three points a game in limited minutes.

Now, every day at practice, Jones has to battle for minutes and the opportunity to earn just a few shots a game. But that’s exactly what she sought when enrolling at LuHi.

“It definitely makes everything more competitive because everyone wants to get a spot,” Jones said. “We just have to keep going and going and going and make sure we are pushing each other each and every day. We all want the same thing at the end of the day, so every day is a battle.”

With all that talent in the gym together, sometimes practices can be more competitive than the games. The shorter roster means everyone plays a vital role daily and each drill and 5-on-5 session is a chance for those who don’t play as much on game days to prove that they should be.

“We basically go to war every single practice,” said Lauryn Swann, a senior guard. “Nobody likes to lose, so every time one team loses, they ask, ‘Can we play again?’ and I feel that makes us better overall. We don’t want to lose to each other, so we know for sure we don’t want to lose to a random team.”

The Crusaders hope all that translates to an extended stay as the No. 1 team in the country. LuHi will be tested throughout the year, returning to the Nike Tournament of Champions along with scheduled matchups against the second, fourth and fifth-ranked teams in the ESPN preseason polls. They will host two top-five opponents, including a chance to get some revenge against Montverde Academy. Their season also includes games in Virginia, Arizona, Washington, D.C. and the Bahamas.

“This year we have a target on our backs,” Ressaissi said. “And that’s actually been helping us throughout practice and making it a lot more competitive. I feel like a lot of us like the challenge of the target on our backs. I feel like we’re ready for it and after last year, we want revenge.”

The Crusaders are welcoming the challenge that comes with being perceived as the best team in the country. But the players understand it’s the results on the court that will truly determine who is No. 1.

“The only thing that changes is we know we have a target on our backs,” Koval said. “We are going to be the best game on every team’s schedule, so we just have to prepare ourselves for it and we just have to be ready for every single game. Rankings are just a number, so it doesn’t really matter. We just want to play basketball. And win.”



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