With blankets and lawn chairs set up in Penns Valley coach Karen McCaffrey’s classroom, the Lady Rams watched the movie, “Hoosiers,” before their season opener against Juniata Valley last Saturday.
Only Penns Valley’s Hannah Montminy had seen the famous basketball film before. Most of the Lady Rams didn’t even know what it was about when the coaches referenced the movie at a practice. “Hoosiers” fittingly told an underdog story as Penns Valley prepared to take on the Hornets, who returned their entire starting lineup after reaching the PIAA Class A championship game last season.
“I’m not sure many people thought we had a chance,” McCaffrey said. “We always feel like we have a chance, but I’m not sure how many other people thought we did.”
The Lady Rams knocked off Juniata Valley 51-50 to open the season on a high note. They returned to the gym Monday for practice, where they turned their focus to their matchup against Bald Eagle Area on Wednesday and tried to keep an impressive season-opening win in perspective.
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“We still have to work hard throughout the whole entire season,” Penns Valley’s Peyton Homan. “It’s just one game.”
Added teammate Dayna Brown: “That one game doesn’t define our whole season, so we just got to keep pushing.”
The Lady Rams have their sights set on reaching the PIAA tournament after falling in the District 6 Class 3A quarterfinals and finishing with a 16-9 record last season.
Penns Valley feels this group is closer than past teams. The upperclassmen played together on an AAU team growing up, and they can coach each other on the court without offending anyone. They’ve also worked to bond off the court with activities once or twice a month — including watching “Hoosiers” before Saturday’s game. The movie — which portrays a tiny Indiana high school’s run to the state championship — highlights the importance of teamwork. And the Lady Rams have already put the team ahead of their individual success.
“No matter what their role is, they support each other — whether they’re a starter, whether they’re coming off the bench,” McCaffrey said. “There’s not a lot of animosity this year. Nobody’s hanging their heads because of the role that they’ve been given.
“When you have 15 kids who are willing to just go out and do whatever it takes for the team, that gives us a lot of different situations that we can put them in.”
In Saturday’s win over Juniata Valley, the game came down to a trip to the foul line late in the game. Penns Valley trailed Juniata Valley 50-49 with less than 10 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter when Isabella Culver stepped to the line.
Culver smiled at the thought of her free throws Monday — she knocked down both to win the game — but admitted it was “nerve-wracking” on Saturday. But she blocked out the pressure and relaxed with some help from Homan.
“Peyton looked at me and she said, ‘Bella, what’d you have for dinner?’” Culver said.
The moment stemmed from a practice earlier in the week when the Lady Rams were struggling with their free throws. They loosened up once they started talking about what they had for dinner the night before. And then, they knocked down free throw after free throw.
At the line, after Homan’s lighthearted question, Culver was confident. She sank both, bringing everyone in attendance to their feet.
“It was a riot in the gym,” Penns Valley’s Emma Butler said.
McCaffrey hoped her players enjoyed the big win during the weekend, but she reminded them it was time to prepare for their next game at practice Monday.
They push themselves throughout tough practices filled with sprints between drills, clapping and encouraging each other even when they’re exhausted. But they also find ways to relax — like talking about dinner at the foul line or laughing off an air ball as a pass — and strengthen their bond as a team.
“We make it fun,” Butler said. “You do have to take the game seriously, but there comes a point when you have to also have fun.”