High school careers, in any sport, are fleeting, and most prep athletes dream about having a senior year to remember. Nobody fantasizes about getting rolled right from the jump and losing four straight games to start their final campaign wearing their school colors.

But Julianna Lynch — known affectionately as “Jules” by her teammates and coaches — knew her final season in the Navy blue and gold wasn’t going to be easy. The Spartans are in the midst of a rebuilding effort under first-year coach Tim Whitworth and are starting three underclassmen, including freshman Kira Murray. There are only two seniors on the entire roster, Lynch and Melody Pugliese, and they have been asked to carry the load, not only offensively, but also in providing leadership to a team that is learning how to win games in the rough-and-tumble Cape-Atlantic League.

“Me and Melody, being the only seniors, we know (teammates) are looking up to us because we used to look up to the seniors. We knew we had to step up and be those leaders and fill the shoes of all the other seniors who came before us,” Lynch said. “For a lot of us — and especially having a freshman as a starter, and a lot of kids coming off the bench are also underclassmen — we just have to remind them that the thing about our schedule was (early on) we were playing Middle, Wildwood Catholic, Atlantic City. Those are great teams, and Wildwood also is a very good team. In those games, you play as hard as you possibly can, and even if you don’t come out with a win it doesn’t mean your season is over. We just had to get that into the heads of the younger players to help them realize that we have 20-something games to play, and our season shouldn’t be based on going 0-4 to start because that can quickly turn right around. We won five in a row at one point, so in the blink of an eye your season can turn around in basketball, which is something I love about it. You have so many games to play, and with more games comes more opportunities for the younger kids to learn, and that’s something that has been my mindset.”

“I’m so lucky that when I came in I had those two seniors to lean on. They’ve taken the leadership role and just ran with it together. I always think your best teams are player-led teams and they have really taken on that role. We have a lot of young kids in the program and they’ve been really good with helping them. I remind the younger kids every day that if you’re going through something, they were in your shoes once and they know what it’s like. They know what the adjustment is like from eighth grade to high school basketball. I’m so appreciative to have the two of them, they are such great mentors to the younger kids,” Whitworth said. “I said to (Lynch) in the summer that I hope she’s ready for it because I was going to put a lot of responsibility on her shoulders, and she has really responded. Right now she’s playing her best basketball. I’m asking her to score, to rebound, to be our vocal leader, and she’s done a great job.”
Lynch is notoriously intense, and it’s not uncommon to find her in the gym several hours after a game, just working on her shot. Particularly if she didn’t shoot well that night. It’s reminiscent of her childhood hoops idol, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I heard from one of the assistant coaches from the boys team, she had a rough shooting game and afterward she was out there putting shots up for a couple hours,” Whitworth said. “Now, when she’s making shots, she deserves it because she’s putting the time in. To have that kind of mentality — I always tell her, ‘shooters shoot.’ And she’s getting in the gym and getting the reps in.”

“I grew up with two older brothers and they were the ones who kind of introduced me to the NBA and showed me NBA2K video games and stuff. I loved Kobe Bryant when I was younger. His career ended when I was in eighth grade so I never got to really see him play much. When (the Lakers) won the NBA championship in 2010, I was 8 years old, so I was kind of young when I saw that. But I would go on YouTube and watch Kobe highlights for hours. I knew I could never match that fade away — nobody is ever going to get that — but he was a role model and somebody I tried to model my game after. He was the ultimate scorer and just an incredible player,” Lynch said. “When my dad was growing up one of my dad’s favorite players was Larry Bird. I would say Kobe is the greatest and he would say, ‘no, Larry Bird was.’ So, both of those players I admire.”

Lynch said she credits her coach with keeping the team focused on the long-term goal and not dwelling on that four-game skid to start the season.

“When we’re in practice I try to stay as positive as I can with my teammates, and coach Tim is a guy who you can turn the ball over four or five times in a row, but if you’re turning it over while you’re pushing it up the floor, he’s absolutely fine with that,” she said. “I think that’s something I love about him as a coach — we’ll screw up and turn the ball over, or not box out and get a rebound, and he doesn’t throw a fit, he doesn’t scream at us. He remains calm, and that helps us stay calm. That played a big factor in our turnaround of losing the first couple of games to then going on a streak and winning the next couple.”

Lynch understands that whether she scores 20 points or two, her main job out on the floor every night is to keep this team moving forward toward improvement, and providing the leadership necessary to help her teammates inch closer to their goals with every game and practice. That’s quite a maturation from a player who, two years ago, was a role player who was relied on primarily to shoot 3-pointers.

“My sophomore season we had a different coach and a smaller team. There were only about eight girls on the team, so if you were in the starting lineup you weren’t coming off the floor very much. You had to find a way to make an impact on the game, and for me that was scoring, trying to get open looks and knocking down some shots,” Lynch said. “My junior year it was more of the same story where I was relied on for shooting, but this year, we’ve had a couple seniors graduate who were our main post players, so I think I had to step up and become more of a threat in the post with rebounding, boxing out and helping push the ball up the floor. I’ve had to communicate with my teammates more and be that leader because I know that if I was in Kira Murray’s shoes, a freshman starting varsity, I would be terrified and I would need that senior to step up and be a leader and be everything I needed. I’m trying to be to her and to everyone else on the team what I needed when I was a freshman and sophomore.”

Even if the Spartans don’t make it into the CAL Tournament this year, or the state playoffs, Lynch has made her mark on this program and her legacy will live on for years to come. She doesn’t care if anybody remembers how many points she scored after she graduates, or how many games the Spartans won. She wants them to remember her tenacity.

“Something I hope people remember about me is that I’ve had three different coaches in my four years and was a starter for three years — we’ve had a lot, we’ve dealt with losing seasons, we’ve had games that came down to the last second and had some incredible overtime wins — and through it all, I just want people to remember me as somebody who never gave up and somebody who was loyal to the game I fell in love with when I was 5 years old,” she said. “That’s how I want people to remember my career.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays