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Crusaders have reasons for optimism in 2021-22 season

The 2021-22 Catholic Central Crusaders - Andrew Grimm

STEUBENVILLE — With three starters returning, Jess Looman is cautiously optimistic as she enters her eighth season as the Catholic Central girls basketball coach.

Leading the list of returnees is senior guard Katie Zatta. As a junior, she averaged 18.8 points per game, 7.5 rebounds and two steals. She connected on 46 percent of her attempts from behind the arc and shot 81 percent from the free throw line. Zatta earned first team all-Eastern District Division IV honors and was a District 5 first-teamer.

Also back is rising junior forward Ellen Rohde. In her first season as a varsity regular, Rohde contributed six points an outing and hauled down a team-leading 12 rebounds. She led the team in blocks with 46 and earned honorable mention on the all-district squad.

The third returnee is senior forward Clara Symington. A standout in volleyball and track for the Crusaders, Symington hauled down 7 rebounds a game and swatted away 38 opponent shots in her first year with the basketball squad.

“We definitely will be leaning on Katie and Ellen this season,” said Looman, who has compiled a record of 87-76 as Central’s bench boss. “They both have worked extremely hard during the off-season to improve their games and stayed busy playing on AAU teams. Katie is a threat to score inside and outside and Ellen can be a force inside once she fully recovers from a hand injury suffered during soccer. She also has some ball-handling skills, so we can use her at guard also.

“Clara is just an athlete. She is an all-Ohioan in both track and volleyball and we’re just really pleased that she is staying with basketball. She has improved tremendously since last season and we think she is primed to give us a big year.”

During the COVID-impacted 2020-2021 season, the Crusaders went 7-15, playing a schedule that changed constantly.

“We were fortunate to play 22 games,” Looman said. “The schedule we ended up playing looked nothing like the one we had when the season began.

“We played teams we normally don’t play and we had games on back-to-back-to-back nights. From a win-loss perspective, the season was not up to the standards we have established in recent years but day in and day out, the effort was there.”

Gone from that squad via graduation are Tina Dong, Bri DeChristopher, who now is playing at Franciscan University, Morgan Green, Ali Grimm and Kaylee Kirkpatrick. Central’s roster also took a hit when several returning players decided to leave the program.

“Our numbers are what they are,” said Looman, who is working with 12 players. “The girls who have stayed with us are working hard and have made major strides forward since practice began.

“I thought we did well in our scrimmages and we have shown constant improvement since the start of the season.”

Ticketed to join the three returnees in the starting lineup are junior guard Theresa Kerker and sophomore guard Jackie O’Karma.

“They both saw some varsity time last season and they’re coming along,” Looman said. “Jackie will start at the point and she’s another one of our girls who played a lot of basketball during the summer with her AAU team.

“Theresa also can play the point and she’s one of our outside scoring threats. She also put plenty of work in over the summer to improve.”

Sophomore forward Anna Arai is the top candidate to serve as Central’s first substitute off the bench.

“Anna’s not afraid to battle inside and we’ll be counting on her for valuable minutes,” Looman said. “Since Rohde can handle the ball, we’ll be able to go with a bigger lineup at times.”

Others looking for playing time are junior guard Olivia Gibas, sophomore guard Ella Maragos, sophomore forward Taila Marcino, freshman guard Natalie Cherepko, freshman forward Ava Marcino and freshman forward Emily Walker.

Junior Gianna Gillette will miss the season as she recovers from knee surgery.

“For us to be successful, we’ll need to do all the little things right,” Looman said. “We need to be solid on the defensive end, take good care of the basketball and get out in transition as much as possible. We want to run, we want to attack so with our numbers, we’ve really been focusing on conditioning.

“Having three starters back is huge. Because of that and because of the way our other girls have been developing, I’m somewhat optimistic about the season. We have a chance to be successful if we show up every night and play our game. We have goals and the only way we will meet those goals if by working hard and be fundamentally sound.”

Looman again is being assisted by Natasha Canella and Ed Looman.

“We’re going to have some growing pains early on with two new starters at critical positions,” Looman said. “We also will be looking for other girls to step up and provide points on the offensive end. We can’t just rely on one or two players to score.

“We can’t afford to beat ourselves. That’s why doing the little things right will be vitally important for us.”

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