By Matt Smith
Archbishop Carroll came a win short of making the PIAA Class 5A final a year ago.
The Patriots advanced to the semifinal round with many of the same players on this year’s team, including seniors Harlem Jennings and Mary DeSimone, junior Erin Sweeney and sophomore Karli Dougherty.
Today, the Catholic League and District 12 champions should play for the championship against District 7 champion Chartiers Valley. Tip off is 6 p.m. at the Giant Center in Hershey.
“You feel bad last year because that was such a great group of seniors, they were such a talented group and all,” Carroll coach Renie Shields said following the Patriots’ 39-32 overtime win over Southern Lehigh in the semifinals. “This team, with this group, to get this far is pretty incredible. Not much you can say, just keep playing hard.”
Jennings noted earlier in the season the Patriots were poised to win it all after capturing the Catholic League title last month. And they wanted to avenge last winter’s disappointing finish.
“We always felt we could go far, but winning the Catholic League was really important for us,” said Jennings, who transferred to Carroll from Bishop Guilfoyle in Altoona after her sophomore year. “We didn’t like the way we finished last season and we believed we fell short. We just are so focused on not coming up short again this year. Together we are really clicking out on the court and all the girls on the believe in the same thing.”
The Patriots are chasing the program’s third PIAA championship. The team won Class 3A titles in 2009 and 2012 under former coach Chuck Creighton. Shields was an assistant on those teams. Her daughter and assistant, Erin, was a star player on the 2009 team.
“She’s the best,” Sweeney said of Shields, “there’s nobody better.”
Excellent defense has carried the Patriots this far in the state tournament. The opposition is shooting around 35 percent from the field and scoring an average of 36.3 points per game.
“It’s what we strive to do in practice every day,” said DeSimone, who made the game-winning free throws against Southern Lehigh. “It’s what we do all the time, that’s us. We’re a defensive team and I think we’ve really proved that.”
Freshman guard Grace O’Neill has done the most damage on the defensive end. In the semifinals, she made six steals to go with her 10 points. She hit a buzzer beater at the end of the second quarter, and made key foul shots down the stretch.
Needless to say, O’Neill has exceeded expectations in her first year of varsity basketball, and is a star in the making.
“To be able to play for a state title is just insane,” O’Neill said. “The girls are awesome and they’re always there for me. In the beginning of the season it was a little hard for me to adjust. To come in here and play against better competition and a lot more skill, the girls have just really helped all year. Playing for the (AAU) Comets has really helped, too.”
Perhaps the most interesting note on Chartiers Valley — other than its undefeated record — is its ties to the 76ers. TJ McConnell’s father, Tim, is the head coach and his sister, Megan, is a junior guard for the Colts. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Tim McConnell accrued 552 wins as the Chartiers Valley boys coach before taking the helm of the girls program this season.