The days when the Bethlehem girls basketball team could sneak up on opponents are officially over.
With most of last year's Section II, Class AA semifinalist squad intact, the Lady Eagles are a preseason favorite to win the Suburban Council and Sectional titles.
The girls worked very hard, so I'm happy they're getting some recognition for that hard work, said Bethlehem coach Mark Nealon.
Whether the Lady Eagles can live up to those lofty expectations depends on how they handle their role as favorites. They haven't been in this position since they won the 2003 Section II, Class A championship, when many of the current varsity players were still in middle school.
"We have to work harder because other teams are looking at us and wanting to raise their level of play when they face us," said Nealon.
Like the 2003 team, the 2007 Bethlehem Lady Eagles has a group of talented veterans to rely on led by forward Alex McCullough and guards Kiersten Swete and Meg Olsen. McCullough was Bethlehem's leading scorer last year, while Swete and Olsen helped out on the perimeter.
"Last year, we had balance (in scoring), and we should have more balance this year," said Nealon. "We have two good post players (McCullough and Sarah Thompson) who should open things up for our outside shooters."
Defensively, Bethlehem will be as tenacious as ever in pursuing the ball and forcing turnovers.
"The one nice thing about them is they know each other very well from other sports, and they know they have to work hard (defensively) because they don't want to let each other down," said Nealon.
The Lady Eagles will have to be relentless defensively if they want to win the league tile. Even though the Suburban Council isn't as strong as it was last year due to the graduation of numerous seniors including Colonie's top nine players, the other 11 teams are also well schooled in playing tough defense. Still, last year's trip to the Sectional semifinals gives Bethlehem some confidence.