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Sister Maria Pares sat in the bleachers surrounded by her Sacred Heart basketball players last week at Daemen College watching Cardinal O’Hara dismantle a future opponent, Grand Island, at the Pastor-Cooper.

“This team must practice their layups,” the veteran coach said to everyone within earshot. “Watch who’s cutting through the lane girls!”

The Sharks didn’t get to be three-time defending champions of the Monsignor Martin Association without paying attention to detail. The upstart O’Hara Hawks gave Sacred Heart plenty to digest, handing the three-time Section VI Class A champions from the Island a 76-34 loss.

No longer do the perennial champion Sharks only have to worry about the Holy Angels and Nardins of the world. Small schools like O’Hara, and St. Mary’s in the not too distant past, have also been posturing to replace them at the top of the mountain.

Sacred Heart has plenty of weapons as it reloads for another title run. The Sharks lost just one starter from last year’s team that fashioned another 20-win season while reaching the final four of the state Catholic tournament in Class A.

The undeniable leader is second team All-WNY guard La’Trice Hall, who averaged a double-double last year. Last month, the 5-foot-9 forward signed a national letter of intent accepting a full scholarship from the University of Hartford of the America East Conference. She also considered an offer from Mercyhurst.

“Their campus was just perfect. It was a perfect size,” said Hall. “As they said in the video they sent me, ‘you can see the same five people that you met yesterday, and you can also meet five new people every day,’ so I fit in very well. It’s a great atmosphere.”

Hall and teammate Hannah Rehbaum are returning All-Catholic picks. Kayla Burt takes her ability to hit the three-pointer to shooting guard while Chelsea Smith takes over at the point.

“La’Trice has learned to take over on the court, she’s learned to play better defense and she gets a lot of steals on the weak side,” said Pares. “She and Hannah are our leaders, and they totally work off each other. Since she signed, and she’s set for college, that makes a big difference in how you play. She’s relaxed, she’s not pressing and she’s quicker than I’ve ever seen her.”

Cardinal O’Hara has set lofty goals for this season despite coming off the most successful campaign in its history at 22-5. The Hawks won the Catholic state title in Class B before bowing in the Federation tournament. They are the Monsignor Martin’s defending South champions finishing 11-1.

Confidence reigns knowing what they’ve got in Leah McDonell, third team All-WNY and co-Player of the Year of the South Division. She entered this season with 1,210 points. She also scored over 100 goals in her soccer career putting her in the mix as one of the all-time greats to come out of the Tonawanda school.

“I’ve been around since about ’90 at O’Hara, I was at Nardin for six years and came back, and there’s one or two other girls from the early 90s that are in the same category as her, but haven’t put up anywhere near the numbers that she has,” said O’Hara coach Dan McDermott. “To be honest with you, she’s basically in a class by herself.”

The Hawks have plenty of talent around McDonell with three returning All-Catholic picks: Kayla Brown, Keyonte Edwards and Sara DiPasquale. O’Hara, last season’s Buffalo News small school champion, will meet Sacred Heart only once during the regular season, Feb. 5 at Villa Maria College. O’Hara has only eight players on the varsity roster, but has a JV for the first time in three years.

“We had the best season in school history last year, we lost one starter, we’re looking to do even better this year even looking at what we were able to accomplish last year,” added McDermott. “The four seniors are looking to go out and basically leave a legacy of something that we’ve never had before.”

While Sacred Heart may be the favorite, Holy Angels isn’t conceding anything. The Angels’ strength is in the backcourt led by returning second team All-WNY junior guard Jontay Walton.

She was the Monsignor Martin’s Player of the Year as the Angels won the North Division. She’s coming off a 494-point season and started this season with games of 28, 25 and 20 points. Awilda Murphy runs the point. Four players rotate as forwards. Don’t miss their nonleaguer against Lockport on Dec. 28 at 6:30 p.m.

Nardin’s 3-0 record includes the title of the this year’s Matthew Foster Tournament. The Gators return two starters, senior Alyssa Donnelly and junior Nicole Frantz on a team that has only three seniors out of 13. “We can score a lot of points in a hurry, we have good shooters,” said coach Joe Dougherty. “On any given night we can play with anybody.”

Nichols’ only returning starter is Morgan McDermott. ... Ciara Rosten of St. Mary’s is coming off an All-Catholic season. ... Christian Central Academy joins the South giving the division a welcome fifth team.

email: mmonnin@buffnews.com