A return trip to the KCEA state finals could be in store for the Panthers, a group that includes, from left, Sarah Griffith, Rachael Beiler, Emily Olson,
A return trip to the KCEA state finals could be in store for the Panthers, a group that includes, from left, Sarah Griffith, Rachael Beiler, Emily Olson, Kristina Croneis, Rachael Neuin and Rachel Ebling. Missing from photo is Emily Harding. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS EARL BRIGHTBILL)
A trip to last year's state championship game could be the motivation the Lebanon Christian girls' basketball team needs this year.

The Panthers put together a 20-6 campaign in 2011-12, one that concluded with a spot in the Keystone Christian Education Association Class AA state final. While the Lebanon Christian girls have won three state crowns in the program's history, one can never have too much success.

Throw in the fact that of the Panthers' six losses, one was by forfeit and four others that were by six points or less. Simply put, things could have been even brighter for the small private school last winter.

That leads to renewed and high expectations for this year's crop of players - and for their head coach as well.

"I think the record could be similar," Craig Griffith said in comparing this year's and last year's teams. "We should compete for a state championship.

"I think it should be a very successful year. We should have a lot of success again."

The Panthers have lost just two players to graduation, but one of them is four-year starter Hannah Griffith, a forward. Brittany Arnold, the team's shooting guard, is also gone, but a capable group of returning players is ready to help fill the void of those who have departed the program.

Sarah Griffith, a point guard who was named all-tournament in all four of the tournaments Lebanon Christian participated in last year, returns for her senior year along with classmates Emily Olson, a 5-8 center who averaged 12 points per game, and Emily Harding, a 5-7 forward who plays at shooting guard and small forward.

That trio will again be part of the Panthers' starting five, and this year it will also include Rachael Neuin, a 5-3 junior who is part of the team's 3-point threat.

"We have strong 3-point shooting," Griffith said, referring specifically to Neuin and Harding. "We have very strong guard play."

Rachael Beiler will most likely fill the team's fifth starting spot, a 5-9 eighth-grader who will be counted on to use her height to control the glass. The rest of the roster includes first-year seniors Kristina Croneis and Rachel Ebling.

All told, there are five 12th-graders on the team, which should lend to some composure when games get tight.

"That core of senior players," Griffith said when asked about the Panthers' strength. "And our ball-handling, and dealing with pressure."

The lack of a deep bench could be a shortcoming for Lebanon Christian should foul trouble or injuries affect the team from time to time.

However, overcoming such obstacles is something Griffith most likely will be able to handle since he has been coaching basketball for 17 years. His last 13 years have been with the Panther boys' team (he coached three years, then took three years off and has been coaching the team for the past 10 seasons), and this is his second year at the helm of the girls' program.

"Coming over to the girls I just bring years of experience," he said. "It's helpful to them."

Pulling double duty isn't an easy thing to do for Griffith, who also doubles as the pastor of the Open Door Baptist Church in Lebanon, a position he has held for the past 15 years.

"Some if it's necessity," he said when asked why he does so much. "That's reality."

With Griffith wearing so many hats, fatigue sometimes can be a factor.

"Exhaustion; I worry about that, not being sharp," he admitted, "but that's where my assistants come in."

Due to his love of the game, it makes coaching basketball less like a job and more like a hobby. Plus, as one can tell by looking over the rosters of the girls' and boys' teams, there are several members of his family playing the sport.

A father of seven, there are two sons and a daughter playing for the Panthers, with Hannah Griffith having graduated from the team earlier this year. He also has sons Daniel (fifth grade) and Zachariah (4 years old) and daughter Mary (third grade) coming up through the program.

"I love interacting with my own kids," he said.

Yes, the ones named Griffith call him "Dad." The others can him "Father."