Piper Minier’s shot bounced tantalizingly on the rim two or three times before it dropped through the netting as a large South Williamsport rooting contingent let out a roar of approval. In what has been a miraculous season for the Lady Mountaineers basketball team, it seemed a moment when good fortunes would once again shine on the team’s determined quest to climb the PIAA Class AA hierarchy.
The pint-sized point guard’s propensity to perform in pressure situations had given the Lady Mounties the lead in a back & forth catfight against the defending PIAA AA defending state champions Mt. Carmel in the din of the Danville gym as the two teams battled to punch their ticket to the state’s final four on the road to Hershey. The two teams had split two earlier meetings, with both games played on the Tornadoes’ home court, and maximum effort is the best way to describe how they played in this pivotal game.
Perhaps stung by their 37-30 loss to South Williamsport in the District IV semi-finals, a loss that snapped their six-year stranglehold on the district championship, Mt. Carmel’s continued tenacity, rebounding dominance, and clutch fourth-quarter three-point shooting swept the swirling Tornadoes to a hard-earned 39-34 win and a rematch with neighboring nemesis Southern Columbia in last Friday’s state semi-final.
As the South Williamsport crowd rose to their collective feet to applaud the team’s effort as the final horn sounded, the immediate disappointment was etched on the faces of the Mountaineer players. They had come farther than any South Williamsport team had done before — becoming just the second Lycoming County team since 2000 to reach the state’s quarterfinals. They believed in themselves, had come so far, and played so hard, and the numbers staring at them from the scoreboard above temporarily washed away all they had accomplished throughout their 23-5 season.
This was not “the little engine that could.” It’s too bad ancient philosopher Aristotle’s time was well before James Naismith invented the game of basketball as a saying attributed to him — “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” — may be the apropos description of Coach Justin Marnon’s squad. The saying reflects the feeling that when one single thing is grouped by a collection of individual parts and properties, it will be fairer, more beneficial, or more perfect than any of the parts would be on their own.
Perhaps the three words, “you belong here,” Marnon had scrawled on the chalkboard in South’s locker room prior to their 42-22 dismantling of District 1 champion Sacred Heart Academy in their previous game, was sending that same message. At first glance, the Lady Mounties would not strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. They are not big, do not look physically strong, and there aren’t many of them, with only 11 players on their roster. But, you cannot measure the determination with which they played. They were often down but never out — and yes, they belonged there.
During his tenure on the South bench, Marnon has nurtured his program like a fine winemaker with his brew. His first season produced just one win, and most of the games weren’t close. Those fortunes steadily improved and back-to-back Mid-Penn Conference championships and this year’s journey into the PIAA Elite Eight have opponents realizing that the South Ladies are for real. Of their five losses this season, two have come to Mt. Carmel, one to Southern Columbia in the District IV championship game, one to Northumberland Christian (that advanced to the PIAA Class A final four), and one to Tri-Valley League champion Line Mountain.
Marnon intends to keep the progress going forward with his team that loses but one senior starter, leading scorer Claudia Green. Key returning players include juniors Piper Minier, Aleigha Reippel, and Sophia Casella, along with a trio of talented freshmen, Lacy Kriebel, Alizabeth Schuler, and Abby Akers.
With Mt. Carmel holding a lead with just seconds to play and a foul shot being taken, Reippel stood near half-court, just staring into the sea of Mountaineer fans in the stands.
“I was just appreciating everyone that came to support us because we didn’t have that kind of support last season, most due to COVID, but even this year at the beginning of the season, we didn’t have it. I began to think about everyone we have inspired, including the little girls that have come out to watch us play, who will be the next wave of South Williamsport players, and in that moment, that meant a lot to me.
“I think it was about halfway through the season when we lost to Northumberland Christian that our collective mentality changed,” Rippel added. “We were way behind and had a big comeback, and we began to realize that if we worked together as a team, we had the heart and passion for the game and could really do some good things if we played our best. I think we did that.”
Freshman Schuler, who played on South Williamsport’s Little League Softball World Series team, reflected on the difference of youth softball and high school competition.
“It was very amazing because of how supportive the crowd was, and that was a whole lot of fun. This was a hard adjustment to make. In Little League softball, I was one of the oldest players, and now as freshmen, we were the youngest. It was very different. There were times in the playoffs all three of our freshmen we on the court at the same time during key moments of the games. That was very rewarding that we were good enough to play in varsity games.”
Rieppel, who also experienced the state semi-finals in soccer, and Schuler now turn their attention to softball, where they are both pitchers on a promising South squad.
“I want to be in the same spot, and I know we can be there. It would be pretty neat to go 3 for 3.”
“I hope we make it all the way and win it,” added Schuler.