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Archbishop Williams girls’ basketball shoots for state final

Archbishop Williams girls’ basketball coach Jim Bancroft has confidence in his young team, including juniors Olivia Conrad (center, above) and Leah Spencer (below from left), sophomore Jaylen Williams, and senior captain Sara Ryan.
Archbishop Williams girls’ basketball coach Jim Bancroft has confidence in his young team, including juniors Olivia Conrad (center, above) and Leah Spencer (below from left), sophomore Jaylen Williams, and senior captain Sara Ryan.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Two words are on the minds of the players on the Archbishop Williams girls’ basketball team at the start of the season: Avenge and succeed.

Motivated by the memory of a 3-point loss to Fairhaven in the Division 3 South final last season, the Bishops bounced Catholic Central rival Bishop Fenwick, 43-27, in Tuesday’s opener.

Archies was a bit shorthanded, with only eight players available to suit up, but the defense was stellar in the win. And coach Jim Bancroft came away more than pleased that his players had shown marked improvement on weaknesses that he had identified early on.

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“Three things I’ve been harping on them in our first two weeks and our two scrimmages is to get better on defense and better rebounding and getting after loose balls,” said Bancroft. “Those three things we did.”

Six seniors graduated from last year’s 20-6 squad, only one of whom was a regular starter, so Bancroft has confidence in the makeup of the Bishops in terms of experience.

And he has faith that his senior captains, guard Sara Ryan and Kayla Free , will seize their roles as leaders.

“I had six seniors last year, so I had six leaders on the team and they all took over leadership roles in one way or another,” Bancroft said. “I wasn’t sure we’d have as strong of leaders on the court, but as each practice and each game goes by, I can see we’re just as strong in the leadership area too with Sara and Kayla.”

Olivia Conrad , a 6-foot-1 junior center, says Ryan and Free are “really the core. Both of them really bring us together.”

Ryan, the team’s leading scorer a year ago, has committed to play at the University of Southern New Hampshire.

Bancroft was not positive that Ryan would be at full strength early on after she underwent knee surgery this summer to repair a meniscus tear. She didn’t play basketball for roughly three months, but contributed 13 points in Tuesday’s opener.

“She was her old self, had the explosiveness, was getting up and down the court and was our leading scorer. So I’m glad that that came around,” said Bancroft.

Conrad, who also has verbally committed to Southern New Hampshire, delivered 11 points and 11 rebounds in the first game.

Junior point guard Leah Spencer is also expected to be a big contributor after a stellar first season in which she averaged 9.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.5 steals per game. Jaylen Williams , a 6-3 sophomore forward headed to Penn State, has great promise. Two older brothers, Brennan and Camren , play Division 1 college football at North Carolina and Ohio State, respectively. Their father, Brent , was a defensive lineman for the Patriots.

Bancroft has a solid collection of athletes that includes four freshmen. And despite that youth, he believes that this group has the potential to be stronger than the last.

“With the freshmen that came in, Victoria Dean, Ednaija Lassiter, Jenna Clark,  and Katryna Veasey  . . .  I don’t think I’ve ever had four freshmen on the team,” Bancroft said. “We’re much more athletic. The skill players have gotten better, so athletically and skill-wise, yeah I think we’re better.”

The returning upperclassmen were pleasantly surprised to see how well the freshmen played at tryouts.

“We are really young too,” said Conrad. “We lost a lot of seniors last year, but we are bringing it together.”

Back-to-back state champions in 2007 and 2008, the Bishops won four consecutive South sectional titles from 2007-2010.

This season, they are determined to make it back to the state championship game.

The focus now is the league schedule, and Tuesday’s matchup at Matignon, in which sophomore forward Alana Gilmer (10 points, 7 rebounds per game as a freshman) is expected to return after suffering a mild concussion in practice.

“Everybody in our league plays hard,” said Bancroft. “They don’t give up. They play tough defense. They’re physical and they’ll play the whole game. We in go there prepared for anything and we expect that they’re going to give us a tough time and we know we have to perform.”

The Bishops have gained momentum from last season and have one goal in mind.

“Everyone has such a love for the game this year, that it just makes it so much easier,” said Ryan. “We’re all out to win. That’s the one thing on our mind.”

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