By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
MAYFIELD -- Heading into the girls basketball season, Mayfield senior Nicole Little took the optimistic outlook on the upcoming campaign for the Lady Panthers.
"It was a little bit tough," she says of getting geared up for the team's first few days of practice. "When I first came into it, though, I was like, 'Well, we can't get any worse than last year. We have to be better.'"
The Lady Panthers played the 2011-12 season without winning a game. A young team without any veterans on its roster, Mayfield never scored more than 29 points in a contest and lost nearly all of its games by double digits.
Now in his third season as the team's head coach, Brian Moore calls last year a "wake-up call" for the girls in his program. Last year's squad did not always put forth the needed level of effort as the losses mounted, but Moore's never had to worry about getting anything less than 100 percent from his girls this season.
"They're fighting harder," he says. "They're scrapping harder and they practice harder. They have the ambition this year."
"These girls," says Little, gesturing to her teammates at Tuesday's practice, "they all care."
It shows. While the Lady Panthers' record this season -- 4-7, with a 3-5 mark in the Western Athletic Conference North Division heading into tonight's home game against Galway -- is not necessarily a thing of beauty, it is a sign of a much-improved squad from a year ago. After opening its season with a pair of losses, Mayfield scored a 16-point victory and has been competitive in nearly every game since its first win -- something of a surprise to even the team itself.
"I expected us to be better than last year," says Jennifer Little, Nicole's twin sister. "But I didn't think we were going to be this much better. This team has a lot more drive than we did last year.
"This team," she continues, "it fights for every game."
The Lady Panthers seem to be driving toward a strong finish, too. The club's last three games have been among its best; the club lost a one-point decision on a late free throw to Saratoga Central Catholic to start 2013; then, the squad almost upset the WAC North-leading Fort Plain Lady Hilltoppers; finally, Monday, the Lady Panthers topped St. Johnsville on a late score, 44-42.
"Alex Sheldon, she got the game-winner with 1.1 seconds left," says Nicole Little. "It was pretty awesome."
For its next trick, Moore wants his team to snag a couple more victories. The coach has never taken a team to sectionals, but Moore says the deal with his team this season is that six or more wins equals a trip to the Section II Class C playoffs.
"I think we have a team this year where -- if we bring our 'A' game -- we can play with anyone," Moore says.
Regardless of how it finishes, this season has already been better than the one from a year ago -- the team's first win against St. Johnsville made sure of that.
"That first win, I jumped around the court and everything," Nicole Little says.