MEDFORD – For the past several seasons, players on the Cherokee High School girls basketball team found comfort in the fact they had a safety net.
When all else failed, the Chiefs knew they could rely on Isabella Therien to come up with some way to make things right again.
Now that element is gone. Therien who was probably South Jersey’s best player last season has graduated, taking her skills as a freshman starter for Loyola University in Maryland.
Those who remain, including Therien’s sisters Ava and Alexa have to figure out how to win games on their own.
The Chiefs did just that on Tuesday night.
Kennedy Wilburn scored 16 points and Ava Therien added 14 to lead a hard-fought 46-37 victory over Shawnee in the Olympic Conference American opener for both schools.
“It’s definitely going to an adjustment not having her,” said Ava Therien, a junior. “She would always get it done – that’s how it was having the best player in South Jersey.
“But I think this year we’re going to work together. It will be difficult without her, but I think we’re going to be all right.”
Freshman Alexa Therien was still in junior high last season, but she recalls watching how dominating a player her sister was, and how she acted as team leader.
The younger Therien has gotten a lot of advice from her sister in preparation for her varsity career.
“We talk all the time,” she said. “I always tell her how nervous I am, but she tells me to take a deep breath and you’ll be fine.”
Despite the loss of the older Therien, the Chiefs still go into the season as one of the region’s most highly regarded teams.
Coach Ron Powell is well aware that’s a challenge the squad is going to have to deal with, knowing they’re probably going to have to take the best shots from their opponents.
But he also fears, however, that a lot of pressure is going to be put onto what is basically a young team missing its traditional leader.
“What people have to remember is that we had the Gatorade runner up Player of the Year graduate,” he said. “These kids, even though we have some starters back, are finding their way without Isabella.
“We’re going to get good. I think we’ll be a better basketball team at the end of January, but right now we’re trying to find our way.”
In the meantime, it will up to players like Ava Therien and Wilburn to help keep the team going until others find their way.
Wilburn played a steady game throughout on Tuesday and showed the ability to both hit the jump shot and play in the post.
She admits to trying to make up for some of the offensive production that Isabella’s graduation took away from the team.
“Isabella was a really good player, and when you have such a good player on your team you like get her the ball a lot,” Wilburn said. “Without Izzie here, we all have to space out and spread out the scoring.”
Even though the margin of victory seemed pretty convincing for Cherokee it did not reflect the way the game developed.
With Lauren Lodge hitting four 3-pointers en route to 12 points and Sierra Sanson adding 11, Shawnee was able turn the game into a contest.
The Renegades seemed to be out of contention early in the third quarter when two baskets by Ava Therien helped open a 27-17 lead for the Chiefs.
But Shawnee answered with a 17-4 run as Sanson scored seven points and Lodge added six to take 34-31 lead late in the third quarter.
A basket Wilburn pulled the Chiefs back to within one by the end of quarter, and then Cherokee took compete command.
They held Shawnee without a fourth-quarter point until Ciara Viccharelli hit a 3-pointer with 15 seconds left in the game.
By then Cherokee had scored nine straight points, four by Wilburn and three by Katie Cumminsky to put the game out of reach.
Cherokee 12 9 12 13-46
Shawnee 10 5 19 3-37
Cherokee: Lindsay Craig 2, Katie Cumminsky 8, Kelsey Wallace 2, Ava Therien 14, Kennedy Wilburn 16, Alexa Therien 4.
Shawnee: Erica Barr 1, Lauren Lodge 12, Cameron Morgan 8, Sierra Sanson 11, Ciara Viccharelli 5.