It’s been a little while since the Bellefonte girls’ basketball team was in this position.
The last time the Lady Red Raiders played in a state playoff game, the team’s seniors were in sixth grade.
The last time they won a state playoff? Those girls were in fourth grade.
Bellefonte (12-12) will be looking to rewrite the history books a little when it tips off in the PIAA Class 5A first round against Trinity (22-3) on 4 p.m. Saturday at Bald Eagle Area High School.
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It’s going to be a new experience for everyone.
“It’s nice coaching this time of year,” said head coach Adam Gearhart, who didn’t join the staff until the 2010-11 season as the junior varsity coach. “It’s new territory for us, for me and the girls. We’re enjoying the extra practices and the extra competition.”
It’s a nice reward for the girls who have toughed it out through a couple losing seasons and who have not even made the District 6 playoffs the previous two seasons.
The last trip to the state tournament was in 2010, when the team was also the district runner-up and fell to Hopewell in the first round.
There was not much certainty a PIAA berth was possible going into this season — or even partway through the year. There were two freshmen in the starting lineup most nights, and there weren’t any big scorers.
“These girls have earned it,” Gearhart said. “They have really come together and worked to get to where they are. Coming in, we didn’t have a superstar. At this point, we still don’t have a superstar, but we have a pretty good team.”
It’s another case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
Lauren Young’s 10.1 points a game lead the team, but four others average between five and seven points a game.
“It helps us a lot,” senior guard Raisa Gregor said, referring to the offensive balance. “It’s hard for teams to shut us down. If one of us is having a really good game then they will focus on her, and then someone else can step up. We all do consistently well.”
Those two freshmen, Maddie Steiner and Mallory Smith, are among those in the 5-7 scoring range, adapting well after getting used to the speed of varsity play and the size and strength of some opponents. Those freshmen, by the way, were in first grade when Bellefonte made it to the PIAA quarterfinals in 2008, the last time the program won a state tournament game.
They also have been surviving with good defense. Their games have hardly been high-scoring, but they average 8.6 steals per game and have been keeping games close.
“A lot of people have been complimenting us on our defense,” Young said. “Without our defense being so effective we wouldn’t be where we are now.”
A notable example was their last game, all the way back on Feb. 25, when they lost 42-30 to Obama Academy of Pittsburgh in the District 6-8-9 final.
Since then they have spent the nearly two weeks working on all the little things they need to go right Saturday, and trying to contain their excitement for the chance to play in the state tournament.
“We’re really excited for the upcoming weekend, but we’re trying to keep our energy and keep our legs,” said Young, who will be playing at the Penn State DuBois branch campus next season. “We’ve been going since the end of November.”
They will need all the defense can muster Saturday afternoon. The Lady Hillers are a fast, guard-oriented team led by 5-foot-6 guard Sierra Kotchman, a four-year starter headed to Division II Fairmont State. She’s averaging 19 points a game and is the school’s all-time scoring leader at better than 1,600 career points.
“We’re swimming in the deep end now,” Gearhart said. “They all told me they can swim. We’re all hitting a whole new world now.”
One big benefit in their favor is a 10-minute bus ride to Wingate for the game, while Trinity will be spending better than three hours on the bus from Washington, south of Pittsburgh.
“It’s really exciting for my senior year to keep going,” said Gregor, whose father coaches the junior high program. “Me and my dad talk about it all the time. We’re like, ‘Wow, we’re still playing and it’s March. That’s crazy to think.’ We’ve exceeded expectations.”
PIAA Class 5A girls’ basketball 1st round
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bald Eagle Area High School
Admission: $6 per person; doors open 45 minutes before the first game
What’s next: The winner plays Wednesday against the winner of Chartiers Valley (19-7) vs. Hickory (14-11)