Kiara Sweeney played her way into a starting role last year, and this year she’s played her way into a starring role.

The West Windsor-Plainsboro High South senior forward, the lone starter left from last season’s girls basketball team, has been a steady presence for the inexperienced and improving Pirates.

“There are more expectations,” Sweeney said. “It’s all with leadership. It’s nothing hard. It all boils down to leadership.”

Sweeney’s performance has helped to soften the blow of the graduation of seven seniors from last year’s team plus the unexpected departure of their junior point guard this season.

“I was ready to take this step because last year I watched the seniors and captains, how they treated us and how they showed leadership,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney kept the Pirates working hard during a long losing streak that was snapped with wins in two out of three games heading into the final week of January.

Following a 52-28 pasting of Lawrence, the Pirates suffered a competitive 55-46 loss to Stuart Country Day School before getting back on the winning track with a hard-fought 49-43 win over Hamilton West on Jan. 20.

Anvi Agarwal led the Pirates with 16 points, Sweeney deposited 12 points, Yael Yonah had nine points, Seriah Barnes had six points, Rebecca Case had four points and Morgan Tunstall had three points. Sweeney’s 12 points marked her eighth straight game in double figures scoring.

“She’s been doing really well for us,” said Pirates first-year head coach Mike Hussong. “She’s been a good source of points for us and she gets a tons of rebounds.”

Last year, Sweeney came off the bench to start the season but then became a bigger contributor and a starter as the season developed. She came back this season knowing that expectations were higher for her and she has delivered. Her scoring average is more than double that of last year’s.

It’s a largely new group on the court for the Pirates. They have had to figure out their roles through the early part of the season.

“I played with some of the girls on varsity throughout my history of ball since middle school,” Sweeney said. “I know how they play. I know they’re good. I know what needs to be done. It’s not hard playing with them. I know they’re capable of handling the ball and everything. I trust my teammates.”

‘We’ve been dealing with a lot of adversity lately. Anything you can think of, we’ve probably dealt with it.’

The players are starting to settle into their roles and realize how they can help make WW-P South better. Agarwal delivered a new career high point total in the win over Hamilton.

“She finally broke out and made a few 3s,” Hussong said. “She’s one of our best shooters on the team. As a sophomore, we expected her to come out and be confident in shooting the basketball. She’s starting to break out of her shell.”

WW-P South has been focusing on all the little details of the game while gaining experience on the court. The Pirates were already thin on experience, but then lost starting point guard Kayla Jackson when she moved to Baltimore, Md. They’ve also had their share of injuries and recently had a player miss time due to the flu.

“We’ve been dealing with a lot of adversity lately,” Hussong said. “Anything you can think of, we’ve probably dealt with it. We’ve been trying to keep improving every single practice. With the girls being inexperienced, we’ve been trying to get them as many reps as possible.”

The Pirates won their first two games of the season but lost their next eight. They bounced back from that stretch thanks to their attitude.

“The win (Jan. 20) really showed us that we are improving, and we still do have things to work on,” Sweeney said. “It let us know to keep fighting. The win we had is the way we want to fight in the rest of our games.”

The Pirates have been working on being more aggressive in practice. They also have been trying to perfect their plays and positioning on the court. Their skillwork is also paying off.

“I think our girls have been making a ton of strides at practice,” Hussong said. “We’ve been improving a lot just fundamentally. It’s really starting to show up in our games.”

Hussong said that the team’s mentality has changed a lot from the beginning of the season until now. “The girls bring positive energy and it’s something we as coaches preach every single day.”

As the WW-P South girls’ basketball team gains consistency, he expects to be able to play more frequently to their strengths. That could lead to more wins down the road.

“We like to play an up-tempo style of basketball,” Hussong said. “We like to press teams, we like to get out and run and score as many baskets in transition as possible. That’s one of the strengths of our team. We’re a very quick team, not big, but very fast and feisty.”

The 5-foot-10 Sweeney provides a little size for the Pirates, provides some scoring and provides some leadership for a team that is still developing every day.

“I’m happy with the way we improved, however, the team can do much better,” Sweeney said. “That all boils down to practice and working harder in practice and wanting to get better as well. We have a lot more to show than we have so far.”