MYERSTOWN - Even under ideal, full-strength circumstances, it would have been a very tall order to fill.
But with the injury bug biting all over the place - and giving go-to sophomore forward Ryelle Shuey a particularly nasty sting in the form of a sprained ankle suffered last weekend - the Elco girls basketball team was a long way from full strength for Friday night's Section 3 opener with defending champ Lancaster Catholic.
But there was some consolation to be found for the Raiders in the fact that they didn't compete as if they were overmatched.
Still, Catholic had way too much firepower for the feisty Raiders, opening their title defense with a convincing 66-51 triumph at Elco High School.
Led by sophomore sensation Kiki Jefferson, the Crusaders (2-1) jumped to a 15-6 lead after one quarter and upped it to 37-23 at the half with the help of a 22-point second quarter eruption.
The outcome wasn't in doubt after that, but Elco (3-2) kept playing as if it was behind 15 points from Jalissa Nolt and 13 more from hard-charging sophomore guard Julia Nelson, whose full-speed intensity symbolized Elco's gritty effort.
"I think the effort was there. I don't think there was a time in the evening you could say that the effort wasn't there," said Elco coach Ashli Shay. "I think they fought like crazy for 32 minutes. I can't complain one bit about our effort."
Unfortunately for the Raiders, Catholic was unwilling to allow the home team's effort to count for anything more than a moral victory. Led by catalysts Jefferson (18 points) and Lauren Mills (14 points), the Crusaders were typically relentless on the defensive end and on the boards, as well as lethal offensively when needed.
A perfect example came in the waning seconds of the first quarter, when Catholic used a putback of a missed free throw and a Lily Fritz '3' at the buzzer to turn a 10-4 lead into a 15-6 advantage in a matter of seconds.
"Mills and Jefferson, you can't say enough about those two," Shay said. "Mills makes it look so darn easy when she shoots the ball, Kiki makes it look easy when she walks into the gym. They're both incredible players that any coach would want to have on their team. You know what you're gonna get every time you play them, it's just a matter of fighting them back."
And to their credit, the Raiders did indeed fight, despite another setback in the form of the foul trouble that plagued point guard Taylor Bossert early, and the defensive blanket Catholic threw on Elco's 3-point threat when she was in the game.
Nonetheless, Elco fought to the bitter end, as evidenced by the 23 points it put up in the fourth quarter.
"I thought they did a fantastic job on taking (Bossert) out of it," Shay said. "But I thought other kids stepped up. I think Julia Nelson really played a heck of a game. Once she realized we needed her to handle the ball a little more she really took it and ran with it."
Lancaster Catholic 66, Elco 51
Lancaster Catholic (66)
Mills 6 0-0 14, Jefferson 7 3-4 18, Rivera 0 0-0 0, Fritz 2 0-0 6, Cannon 3 3-4 9, Misel 0 1-2 1, Scarff 1 1-2 3, Miller 1 1-2 3, Hackman 2 0-0 4 Peris 1 0-0 2, Haefner 3 0-0 6.. Totals: 26 9-14 66
Bosser 1 3-6 6, Nelson 4 5-8 13, Nolt 4 7-7 15, Rosengrant 0 4-4 4, Bidelspach 2 3-4 7, Sonnen 1 0-0 2, Gerber 1 0-0 2, Stine 1 0-0 2. Totals: 14 22-29 51.
Lancaster Catholic 15 22 15 14 - 66
Elco 6 17 5 23 - 51
3-point field goals: LC - Mills 2, Fritz 2, Jefferson, E - Bossert