Veteran trio ready to lead as North girls basketball season approaches

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Grosse Pointe Times | Published December 6, 2023

 Grosse Pointe North coach Gary Bennett speaks to his team during a team practice  on Nov. 30 at Grosse Pointe North High School.

Grosse Pointe North coach Gary Bennett speaks to his team during a team practice on Nov. 30 at Grosse Pointe North High School.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Grosse Pointe North seniors Jenna Winowiecki, right, and Natalie Babcock, left, will be senior captains who North relies on this season alongside senior Julia Liagre.

Grosse Pointe North seniors Jenna Winowiecki, right, and Natalie Babcock, left, will be senior captains who North relies on this season alongside senior Julia Liagre.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


GROSSE POINTE WOODS — If you would’ve told Grosse Pointe North senior team captain Julia Liagre during her freshman season that she’d be a team captain and a mentor for her younger teammates as a senior, she’d probably have the same reaction as she plans to have when she gives her senior speech at the end of the year.

“I remember freshman year standing under this gym lifter and Mr. (Gary) Bennett telling me, ‘You’re gonna be on the team, but you’re never going to play and you got to be OK with that,’” Liagre said. “Then to now, the transformation is absolutely insane. That girl standing under that gym lift would have never thought senior year that she’d be a captain. It’s absolutely surreal. We give senior speeches at the end of the year, and I know I’m going to cry.”

Liagre is one of three senior team captains alongside Natalie Babcock and Jenna Winowiecki, all four-year varsity players who have been a part of three straight Macomb Area Conference Red league titles.

For the first time in their careers at North, they’re leading the charge as the seniors who the young players look up to, and the void isn’t one that just anybody can fill, as North graduated two all-state talents last year in Sophia Borowski and Annabel Ayrault, who is currently playing at Wayne State University, and a consistent starter in Mia Stephanoff.

As three senior leaders departed, three emerged, and North coach Bennett said his three seniors are prepared for the challenge.

“They did a lot of things that I call irreplaceable by any single person, but collectively the group has to take over where the seniors left off,” Bennett said. “I think those kids that are back spent enough time with those three seniors that they know what needs to be done. I think they’ll step up and do it.”

An important part of the leadership role is stepping up for the underclassmen, and the seniors are ready and willing for that task.

Liagre said her memories of her freshman year have helped her grow into being a leader this season.

“At our first pasta party, I did not speak,” Liagre said. “I said zero words. I remember it so vividly because I’m sitting at this girl’s house at her kitchen table with my head down. That honestly sucked. It was nothing against any of the girls on the team, because I just didn’t feel comfortable enough. I don’t want to see any of the girls in that position. Today, I picked up one of the freshmen for practice and we’re going to go get breakfast after. It’s being the same with them as you are with everyone else.”

The other part is leading by example, and Winowiecki, Babcock and Liagre did plenty of that last season, and they’re prepared to do it again.

During Ayrault’s injury last season, Winowiecki and Babcock emerged as two premier scorers for the Norsemen, and it’s no secret as to why the pair can score so efficiently together.

Both playmakers for PR1DE 2024, a travel basketball team, Winowiecki and Babcock’s on-court chemistry has been solidified for quite some time, and they’ll be an exciting duo to watch again this year.

“For travel, we’re always together,” Winowiecki said. “Sometimes we get sick of each other, but it translates to North basketball well. She’s really fast, so I’ll get a rebound and she’ll be down the court and I’ll just chuck it to her. We just have really good chemistry.”

North basketball is and will always remain built on a defensive mindset, and Bennett’s squad plans to carry the hunger and energy on the defensive side into this season.

Talk about an imposing defense: North allowed 33.7 points per game last season, which was the eighth-fewest of the MAC’s 36 teams.

Add a player like freshman Ella Richardson into the mix who can protect the rim at an efficient rate, and North’s defense will be one of the stronger units in the conference again this season.

“She’s (Richardson) got super long arms and she’s going to get a lot of blocks for us, which is huge,” Winowiecki said. “Every time we’re in practice and she gets a block, I’m like, ‘Man, she’s got long arms.’ She’ll be great for us.”

With North’s backcourt solidified, the frontcourt will be something to watch this season as North looks to fill the void left by Borowski.

Liagre, who stepped in for the injured Ayrault last season, will now be tasked with taking over responsibilities in the post.

Liagre said her early experiences in the post helped her work on where she needed to improve heading into this season.

“Coming in, I was just so fragile and frail, and I could not be down there without getting roughed up embarrassingly,” Liagre said. “Now, I’ve kind of grown more into myself, and we work on post moves every day. I’ve definitely gotten a lot better at that, and since we lost our starting center last year in Sophia Borowski, we definitely need somebody new to step into that spot. I had a feeling, and Mr. Bennett told me, that’s going to be mostly my job.”

Senior Alana Williams and sophomore Eva Borowski, who made a name for herself last year as a freshman, are also expected to be consistent contributors for North this season. Also expect to see contributions from senior Emma Dudek and freshman Aakanksha Nagori.

The leadership trio of Liagre, Winowiecki and Babock will look to build off the team’s state quarterfinals trip last year, where they were eliminated by a tough Detroit Renaissance team.

First, they’ll set their sights on winning their fourth straight MAC Red title, which if it comes to fruition, the North archive department should check to see if Liagre, Winowiecki and Babcock would be the first North players in school history to be a part of four league titles.

“The MAC Red is a really strong league and everyone plays hard every game,” Babcock said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. Teams come in first one year and last the next year. You never know.”

If one thing is for certain, it’s that North basketball is ready to take the floor on Dec. 9 when the team opens its season against Marysville.

“I think there’s a lot of respect in our program, and I think everyone knows what we’re coming with and bringing into every game,” Babcock said. “They know how we’re going to be playing, and they know what our mindset is.”