Strong senior core leads Mercy to unbeaten start

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Farmington Press | Published January 24, 2023

 Mercy senior Lillian DeJong attempts to grab a rebound.

Mercy senior Lillian DeJong attempts to grab a rebound.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Farmington Hills Mercy senior Lauren Smiley takes the ball up against Warren Regina on Jan. 17 at Mercy High School.

Farmington Hills Mercy senior Lauren Smiley takes the ball up against Warren Regina on Jan. 17 at Mercy High School.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


FARMINGTON HILLS — If there’s one thing that stands true about Farmington Hills Mercy no matter the senior class, it’s that they always leave a lasting impact on the next batch of seniors.

This year’s example consists of the 2022 senior class, which included Division One all-State honoree Sarah Cunningham and Division One all-State honorable mention Sophie Dugas.

Leading Mercy to an 18-5 record, a regional semifinals trip and a Catholic High School League-Central title last season, Cunningham and Dugas left a void for the 2023 senior class to fill, but the void they left behind was also filled with the influence they made.

“I knew I had big shoes to fill because we’ve always had great leaders in the past, but I knew I was up for the challenge,” Mercy senior guard Fran DeNardo said. “The seniors in my previous years on the team have had a big role in my development as a player. They pushed everyone really hard to become the best basketball player they could be. Not only that, but they were also very encouraging and lifted everyone up if they were struggling. I definitely looked up to them, and I hope I’m making the younger players on the team feel the same way the previous seniors made me feel.”

DeNardo has come into her own this year as a senior leader alongside Division One all-State honorable mention and senior captain Maya White and senior captain Lauren Smiley.

As one strong senior class succeeds another, it’s no secret why Mercy (11-0) has opened the season undefeated and ready for another shot at the state tournament.

Mercy coach Gary Morris said a key strength in the senior captains’ leadership is how each captain can bring a certain trait to the team.

“That’s something we’re really big on,” Morris said of leadership. “Lauren, Fran and Maya probably each bring a different strength as captains and leaders. Lauren is more vocal, Maya is more of a quiet leader, but in terms of leading with her physical play, and Fran is somewhere in the middle, leading with her hard work. They all really lead by their hard work.”

Hard work is an understatement for this Mercy group, for the balanced attack on both sides of the court has been a true testament to their success.

During their unbeaten stretch, Mercy has allowed just under 32 points per game, holding seven teams to 32 points or fewer. The offense has countered with an impressive 55 points per game.

“I think our team emphasizes defense more, and we also pride ourselves on our defense,” DeNardo said. “Our coaches always say that defense wins games, and I think that we collectively agree with that statement. Some nights our shots aren’t falling, but our defense keeps us in the game.”

On the offensive side, Mercy sophomore guard Aizlyn Albanese has blossomed into a perimeter threat. Albanese was a part of the starting rotation last season, but has shown significant improvement in her second year on the squad.

Albanese said she credits her mindset change for her progress this season.

“I feel like this year is different in my attitude and confidence,” Albanese said. “I really went in trying to have confidence in my game and shot. I also really am trying to focus on my attitude through the season, because it is a long season, and there are times it gets tiring and is hard. As a team, we’re doing a really good job of sticking together and having good attitudes.”

Team chemistry is a Mercy specialty, and it’s no different for the basketball team. During the summer, Mercy takes a team camp to Gaylord before the start of the season.

Like the family-oriented culture Mercy aims to drive home, the Mercy veterans help the underclassmen open up through team bonding, and it pays off with some remarkable on-court chemistry.

“I feel like this (Gaylord) is where a lot of the girls really start to bond more,” DeNardo said. “During this time, the shy girls tend to open up and crack more jokes. We spend three days together just playing games and building that team chemistry, which is always good for us.”

Albanese said the seniors’ impact on the team this year has played a vital role in their success.

“I think the seniors have done an incredible job with their leadership this year,” Albanese said. “We have bonded as a team a lot and gotten really close. I also think during practice, the seniors lead and have the attitude we should during practice, which leads the rest of us to have the same attitude. I think they saw that losing Sarah and Sophie last year would definitely have an impact, but they decided to make the best out of it and really stepped up.”

As Mercy already sits atop the CHSL-Central conference, its continued success will be in large part due to their solidified chemistry.

Whether on offense or defense, on or off night, scrimmage or state tournament game, expect Mercy to move forward as one strong unit.

“I think we’re 11-0, to a degree, because of how the kids have been great teammates to one another, and of how coachable they have been,” Morris said. “In my mind, it’s been very similar to last year.”