Losing 10 seniors to graduation can often mean that a team will enter a transition phase the following season. But the expectation for the Pierson girls basketball team over the last few years has been to reload rather than rebuild, and the defending Suffolk County Class C champs and Regional Finalists should remain a force this year.
Among the 10 seniors lost, were leading scorer and All-County player Katie Kneeland, as well as leading rebounder Celia Barranco. But Pierson brings back one of the most talented guards in the county in senior point guard Chasten Giles, who led the team in assists and was the second-leading scorer as an All-Conference player last year. Sophomore guard Sofia Mancino, an All-League pick, and senior guard/forward Mahlia Hemby return to the team as well.
The Lady Whalers also got a boost with the return of three seniors who did not play last season for various reasons, but had been on the team in earlier years and have come back for their final seasons. Guards Halle Kneeland and Samantha Cox and center Kathryn Powell should all be solid contributors to the squad this season.
Newcomers to varsity include juniors Grace Perello, Brooke Esposito, Gylia “Gigi” Dryden and Chiara Bedini, as well as freshman Meredith Spolarich.
Pierson will be led this season by new head coach Woody Kneeland. He takes over for former coach Kevin Barron, who stepped down at the end of last season to spend more time with his family. Kneeland is well acquainted with the team and program, having served as the assistant coach, along with his brother, George Kneeland, for several years, and having been involved in coaching with basketball in Sag Harbor, at various levels, for 18 years. Heidi Wilson, the new JV coach, will also step in to help assist on varsity this year.
“I love this game and love coaching these ladies,” Kneeland said. “We have built something really special over the last several years. I want to keep building on that.”
The Lady Whalers will certainly be hoping to defend the county title they won last season while going undefeated in league play, 17-3 overall.
“Everyone will play and contribute,” Kneeland said. “We have a pretty strong team from top to bottom.”
The Lady Whalers were scheduled to start the season at home against Westhampton Beach on December 4 at 6:15 p.m. in a non-league game, and will open League VII play at home on December 6 against Center Moriches at 6:15 p.m.
A new but familiar face will patrol the sidelines for the Pierson boys basketball team this season, as Will Fujita has taken over as head coach after former head coach Hank Katz decided to step down. Fujita is the orchestra teacher at Pierson High School but is memorable for anyone who closely followed League VIII boys basketball in the last decade — he was a standout player for one of Pierson’s rivals, Southold, several years ago, graduating in 2012, the last time the Pierson boys won a county title.
Fujita has been familiar with the program, having coached the JV the last three seasons. He inherits a team that lost just one senior, starting point guard Cooper Schiavoni, to graduation. Pierson brings back senior guard/forward Henry Brooks, last season’s leading scorer who played on the Suffolk County Top 40 team last year. Brooks is on the cusp of scoring his 1,000th point this season, and Fujita said that while he isn’t sure on the exact number of points that Brooks needs to get there, it’s reasonable that it will happen in his final season.
Joining Brooks on the team is sophomore forward Wilson Bennett, who was brought up to varsity midway through last season, and senior guard/forward Nick Egbert, who will be counted on to be a defensive presence and grab rebounds. Senior point guard Peter Schaefer will be the team’s primary ballhandler, assuming point guard duties in the absence of Schiavoni, while sophomore Cecil Munshin, a first-year varsity player, will also handle the ball. Habtamu Coulter, a second-year varsity player, and senior center Harry Cowen will give Pierson size and presence in the frontcourt.
Pierson will compete in League VIII alongside fellow Class C schools Southold, Ross, and defending county champion Greenport, as well as with ‘D’ schools Shelter Island, Bridgehampton and Smithtown Christian.
Fujita says his emphasis will be less on a specific outcome and more on consistency when it comes to effort.
“I just want them to work hard every day,” he said of his team. “This season is the longest of the three sports seasons, so it’s just about keeping the same consistent mindset throughout the games.”
Asked to define his coaching style and what he wants his team to embody, Fujita used the word “grit.”
“I’m just somebody who believes in fundamentals and in playing hard all the time, even if you think no one is watching,” he said. “These guys play very well together and they’re all pretty close, so my job is just to continue to push them.”
Pierson will open the season at home against Mattituck in a non-league game on December 3 at 6:15 p.m., and will open the league season on December 6 at the Ross School at 4 p.m.