The 2015-2016 season for the Catholic women really started in January of 2015.
With their success in recent years, the goal is always to compete for a conference championship and more, but with such a young squad, it's difficult to know exactly what the team's ceiling is. As conference play began last season, Coach Matt Donohue saw the team become aware of its potential.
"We realized last year that we could be that good. Now, [having won the conference tournament] we're going to get everyone's best effort night in, night out. We can't take those opportunities for granted."
The three senior captains were well aware of this, too. Having been freshmen on the school's best ever women's squad, going 27-2 and reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2013, they understand what it takes to compete at the level this team is both ready and expecting to compete this year.
"Having the experience of that team is so valuable," says senior forward Josie Migash, "We're going to take it and use it this year."
Moments after the 2015 championship game, Donohue and his captains were talking, inspired to build on their success and reach the next level this season.
"They approached me, wanting to be challenged, be more prepared out of the gate, and be more prepared in the off-season."
Part of that preparation is scheduling strong. Catholic opened on the road at Randolph-Macon, an ODAC team that won 20 games last year. It was a tough, four point loss that saw the Cardinals give up a lead late. Junior Melissa Errico came off the bench to lead all scorers with 26, including 12 in the fourth quarter, but it was not enough to hold off a strong Yellow Jackets squad playing at home. Catholic did follow up the loss with a win against Ferrum the next day.
Before the weekend Donohue said, "We'll know where we are Friday night and Saturday and we'll know where we need to improve."
One of those improvements will be an emphasis on free throws, especially after rule changes implemented this year.
Point guard Michelle DeSantis, a junior who led the team in scoring last season, says, "We noticed the changes in pre-season. We're going to have to play smarter defense, save our fouls. We're also going to have to be better shooting free throws. They matter more with these new rules."
In the fourth quarter against Randolph-Macon, Catholic didn't step to the free throw line even once while giving the Yellow Jackets 12 opportunities.
Regardless of the opening disappointment, Donohue knows he's got a strong team and scheduled strong intentionally to prepare the squad for an incredibly tough Landmark Conference schedule. Lots of teams are bringing back huge chunks of their rosters, not to mention the "new" face of Moravian's pre-season All-American, Alexis Wright, back for a fifth year after missing her senior campaign with injury.
"I think Juniata finished sixth last year, and we split with them," says Donohue, "Scranton lost three great players, but they had such a strong supporting cast, you almost can't even call them supporting."
The Cardinals see everything coming together for a special year.
"We're treating every practice like a game," says DeSantis, "It's a new kind of intensity."
This largely stems from Donohue, says Migash: "We see his desire and determination and we build off that. His concentration on the details in imperative; it takes all of those little things to win."
Of course, Donohue is quick to pass credit on to the players.
"I've always tried to surround myself with good people. Our assistant coaches are fantastic. The atmosphere of athletic success is all around us at Catholic. We bring in good players. We focus on players with the right character, right determination, and we help them develop."
Migash sees the difference experience and development are making on the floor.
"It's all about communication. We have to be always talking. The captains need to be coaching, on the floor, on the bench, wherever we are. Communication is key."
With so many returning players, there is a question whether the talented freshmen would see any playing time (three of four did see the court opening weekend).
"There's a different pace in college," says Donohue, "We like to work the freshmen in gradually, but one of the great things about building a program is the respect for those who've gone before. Our seniors learned that respect as freshmen and they pass it on. We're a team."
This team started building from last season, a fact recognized by d3hoops.com Top 25 voters, who made Catholic the only ranked women's team from the Mid-Atlantic in the preseason.
"It's great to be recognized like that, with so many great teams [in our region]," says Donohue, "But I'm not going to say I'm thrilled to have that spotlight on us."
Like it or not, the spotlight is shining bright for Catholic women's basketball. The only question left: how far can they go?