Health offers Armstrong an immediate response

Armstrong junior Hana Sacic looks for an opening during the Falcons season opening loss at Anoka Nov. 30. Sacic has 14 points in that game, then scored 13 more in a 52-35 victory over Blaine Dec. 4. (Photo by Bill Jones – Contributing Photographer)

The Armstrong girls basketball team had played two games. One without Sam Zbaracki, and then one with the 5-foot-8 senior guard in the line-up.

The difference was beyond noticeable.

Injured during the very first week of tryouts, Zbaracki was forced to sit out the Falcon’s season opener, which resulted in a 63-32 loss at Anoka Nov. 30.

Zbaracki would return the next time out, however, and her impact would be immediate.

She scored a game-high 14 points, and Armstrong got 13 each from Lyrick Williams and Hana Sacic in a 52-35 victory over Blaine Dec. 4.

“We obviously needed her,” said Armstrong head coach Antiwan Easley, who is also still waiting the return of Emily Jacobson to the rotation. “When we are healthy, we have a chance to be pretty good. We got Sam back, and that really helped. Now we just need Emily back out there too.”

Jacobson twisted an ankle in a preseason scrimmage and has yet to play. A year ago, she averaged 8.8 points per game, which makes her the Falcons’ leading returning scorer from 2011-12.

Zbaracki, who averaged 7.1 points last year is next on that list, and she’s closely followed by Sacic, who netted an even seven points per game last season.

That core should allow Armstrong to be competitive in the Northwest Suburban Conference. That is, when they are all out there together.

“When you don’t have all your leaders it makes it more difficult,” Easley said. “They make a huge difference. Sam didn’t even really practice until (Dec. 3), and the next night, she leads us in scoring.”

Sacic held that candle in the opener, and her emergence – the junior scored 27 points in the first two games – has been one of the positives Armstrong has taken out of its injury woes.

Girls were offered an opportunity to take on roles reserved for others, and some have flourished.

Rachel Russ, who Easley said will come off the bench when the team is back to full strength, scored 11 points in the loss at Anoka. Williams, who will be in the starting five, averaged 10 points a game through the first two. And others have complimented the scoring in different ways.

“That has been the nice thing,” said Easley. “We have had some younger players step up and make the most of the opportunity. I’ll be grateful to get everybody back so we can have our depth, but the experience some of these girls are getting is important.”

Armstrong will likely need a little of both that experience and its depth as the season moves ahead.

The NWSC appears solid once again, maybe even better than a year ago, said Easley of a league that had its champion (Osseo) finish second in all of Class 4A last winter.

The Falcons had a pair of conference games on the schedule this week – vs. Park Center Dec. 11 and then at Champlin Park at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14 – before playing their final league game of 2012 at home against Maple Grove Dec. 18.

“It’s a great conference, and it is fun to compete in, but it is also really tough,” said Easley. “Even looking at last year, Osseo is state runner-up and they lost twice to Coon Rapids. That tells you how strong the conference is.”

Armstrong finished an even 10-10 in NWSC play last year. That came after a 6-14 season in their inaugural NWSC season in 2010-11.

“That first year we finished towards the bottom, and then last year, we were right in the middle,” Easley said. “This year, realistically, we have an opportunity to hopefully finish towards the top. That is our goal.”