More attention than ever before will descend upon the Cicero-North Syracuse girls basketball team this season, for many different reasons.
From a team standpoint, it's because the Northstars are two-time defending Section III Class AA champions, returning all but one player (Brittney Fedele) to the fold, so it is heavily favored for a third straight title.
Then there's the spate of individual stories, none bigger than that of 6-3 junior Breanna Stewart. Named a first-team All-American by the Sporting News, Stewart is the subject of an intense recruiting battle as big-name programs like Connecticut and Tennessee vie for her services.
But Stewart doesn't have to go it alone on this team. It already has a Division I signee in senior point guard Kelsey Mattice, who is going to the University of Maine next year. Add the talents of Brittany Paul, Abbey Timpano and Kara Gannett, and head coach Eric Smith has a right to think that his Northstars could make a state title run this time around.
To test itself (and showcase Stewart), CNS opens its season with three consecutive tournament appearances, starting with last weekend's Lady Raider Tip-Off Classic at Utica Proctor.
And the Northstars won it, culminating with Sunday's championship game where, against the hosts from Proctor, CNS fought hard to beat the Raiders 61-45.
Much of the game's attention focused on Stewart and Proctor's Brianna Kiesel, the latter a senior already signed to the University of Pittsburgh who, in the Raiders' 64-59 opening-round win over CBA, became the school's all-time leading scorer.
Though the Northstars gained a 28-23 lead by halftime, it could not get away from Proctor as Kiesel worked her way to 25 points, carrying her team along.
Only in the fourth quarter did CNS draw clear. Part of it was because Kiesel did not get much help from her teammates, none of which scored in double figures. By contrast, Paul, aided by a pair of 3-pointers, put in 17 points and Sarah Bowles added eight points, as they prevented the Raiders from keying too much on Stewart.