A familiar face is returning to the benches at girls’ basketball games this winter.
After four seasons away from the game, Karen McCaffrey is once again guiding the Penns Valley girls as the season is set to tip off this week.
“It kind of feels like I never left — right now,” McCaffrey said as she prepares the Lady Rams for their season opener against Juniata Valley on Monday. “It’s nice to be back.”
McCaffrey, who is entering season No. 17 with Penns Valley, is one of three Centre County coaches with more than a dozen years of experience on the bench, joining Centre County Christian’s Martie Maholic (20th season) and State College’s Bethany Irwin (22nd season).
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“It’s nice to see Karen McCaffrey back,” Irwin said. “I’m really happy for that.”
McCaffrey, a teacher in the Penns Valley school district, took time away from the game to catch her daughter Korey’s college games, while Andrea Borland guided the program. When Borland stepped down after last season, McCaffrey knew it was time to return.
While the basics and fundamentals were solid with the team, McCaffrey is changing the style of play for the team. When she coached before, the Lady Rams had a tough defense and tried to turn it into points in transition.
“They’ve been willing to try anything,” McCaffrey said. “They’ve been accepting of everything we’ve been trying to teach them.”
It has been a period of adjustment for both the girls and the coach, but McCaffrey is glad to have the chance to push them again.
“We’ll see how it looks,” McCaffrey said. “We’ve just been throwing a lot of stuff at them. When you’re changing everything, it’s a lot to take in. We’re starting slow, but I think their heads are swimming right now.”
The team with perhaps the biggest expectations heading into this season is State College.
The Lady Little Lions are coming off a strong season in the Mid Penn Conference, a District 6 Class AAAA title and a PIAA second-round appearance.
While a few key players from that team were lost to graduation, the Lady Little Lions do bring back one of the top front courts in the region in Kyla Irwin and Jalyn Shelton-Burleigh.
The pair combined for over 30 points and 20 rebounds a game last season. Kyla Irwin has given an oral commitment for a scholarship from the biggest women’s basketball power in the country, Connecticut, and Shelton-Burleigh is headed to Lock Haven.
“I think I have two of the strongest post players, and they complement each other so well,” Bethany Irwin said. “They’ve played together since seventh and eighth grade, and they read each other extremely well. If both of them are on, it’s going to be very difficult to stop both of them.”
The Lady Little Lions will have some holes to fill in the back court, and there is plenty of work to do to find the right combinations, but they are setting their sights on another strong run into March.
“I think we’re going to do well, I hope we do well,” Bethany Irwin said. “I know we’re definitely not at our peak right now, which is a good thing. But the kids are working hard, asking questions and wanting to watch old game film on teams. That’s a good sign.”
With some hard hits from graduation the last three seasons, Bald Eagle Area is trying to rebuild a little, and they will be quite young this season. There are just two seniors and one junior on the 13-girl roster.
“(We are) looking forward to a fun season,” BEA coach Troy Butterworth said. “(We are) returning two seniors Hayley Giedroc and Maddie Cingle who will give the team the leadership for a very young team that will have to learn and grow quickly this season.”
Bellefonte has had a resurgence, finishing above .500 last season and making the district playoffs for the first time in five seasons. The Lady Raiders did see several key players graduate from that team, and have changed coaches, but new leader Adam Gearhart is optimistic.
“We have a good group of girls to build around,” Gearhart said. “They were successful last season and we want to continue that success. We don’t have an easy road ahead of us, but I think we have the players to handle it.”
Philipsburg-Osceola is hoping the future is now after suffering through a very young roster the last few seasons. Just two players graduated off last year’s team that finished 4-17 after just one left for graduation the season before.
“We are looking for a very competitive season,” coach Doug Myers said. “The Mountain League once again is very strong. We want to improve on last season and our hope is for the upcoming season to be a positive experience for our student-athletes.”
CCCA is coming off a 7-14 season, but they did qualify for their Allegheny Christian Athletic Alliance tournament for the first time in a few seasons, and Maholic is optimistic about this season and the future. The roster is huge, with 15 girls when typically eight or nine was large for the program. With some size in the post as well, the Lady Bulldogs will try to exploit that as the season continues, especially as the raw newcomers gain experience.
“The older group has real potential, and we have good size,” Maholic said. “We’re kind of looking to build on the success we had last year, and having size this year will make it interesting.”
Making its first appearance as a varsity program is St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy. The Wolves have fielded a junior varsity program the last two years but are venturing deeper this season.
“As a program that is still in its infant stages, we are making progress,” coach Brenna O’Connor said. “We are looking forward to making our mark. We have a young but determined team and we expect to work hard and be competitive.”