With a stacked starting lineup of four Division I-bound players, Cardinal O’Hara was a favorite to make it back to Hershey’s GIANT Center to play for a PIAA championship last winter.
It was nothing short of stunning that those plans were not realized, as O’Hara lost in the Class 6A semifinals against Boyertown. Even worse, it happened on a buzzer-beater.
In the moment, the disappointing finish to an otherwise stellar campaign was considered an end of an era. For Hannah Nihill and Mary Sheehan, both All-Delco players since their sophomore years, their high school careers were over.
Kenzie Gardler, Maura Hendrixson and Molly Paolino, all of whom had started alongside Nihill and Sheehan since their freshman seasons, were left to pick up the pieces and move forward.
And it wasn’t going to be easy. For the remaining seniors, the winter of 2017-18 would be their most challenging.
“It was definitely an adjustment, but I like being the underdog,” Gardler said after O’Hara defeated Neumann-Goretti last Monday to capture its second straight Catholic League title. “We lost to Goretti and Wood in the regular season last year, too, so it was a similar situation. We surprised a lot of teams. We got better together and started to play really well together. It shows how special our team is.”
The Lions were expected to compete in the vaunted Catholic League, but after placing third in the regular season, there were questions about how far they could go. Can they return to the Palestra? How far can they possibly advance in the state tourney?
It turns out, while everyone was questioning how good they were, the Lions were improving each day and beating everyone along the way. O’Hara is poised to make a deep run in the Class 6A tournament, which gets started Friday night.
Could this be the best O’Hara team in the Gardler-Hendrixson-Paolino era? After losing to Cumberland Valley in the former PIAA Class AAAA title game in 2016 and falling to Boyertown last year, the Lions are as battle-tested as they come.
Who’d want to play a team that has defeated — in convincing fashion, no less — Archbishop Carroll, Archbishop Wood and Neumann-Goretti to get here?
Gardler, Hendrixson and Paolino are playing their best basketball, together, since their freshman year. They have showed their mettle, time and time again, during the team’s stretch of 13 consecutive victories. The Lions (21-4) have not lost a game since Jan. 20.
In addition to the usual suspects, the Lions have seen guard Kerry Patterson and sophomore forward Stephanie Huseby step into the starting lineup and flourish in complementary roles. Patterson had been a key reserve off the bench before this season, while Huseby transferred from Shawnee High in New Jersey, and has added some much-needed size and physicality in the low post.
“I think a lot of people underestimated us because we lost all of our seniors from last year,” Paolino said. “It was just as important, though, that toward the end of the season we started to jell together.”
O’Hara, which claimed the District 12 title by scoring a season-high 79 points last Saturday, opens the PIAA Class 6A tournament against Upper Dublin, District 1’s ninth-place finisher. It’s a rematch of last winter’s first-round game, in which the Lions won with ease, 53-25.
O’Hara’s biggest challenge will be containing Nicole Kaiser, Upper Dublin’s (21-5) dynamic senior forward, who scored 23 points in a victory over C.B. East last Saturday.
The winner of O’Hara-Upper Dublin will play either Garnet Valley or Elizabethtown in the quarterfinal round Tuesday.
In another PIAA Class 6A first-round game Friday:
Elizabethtown vs. Garnet Valley, at Interboro, 6
The Jaguars (23-4) earned third place in District 1 with arguably their most impressive victory of the season last Saturday. Junior forward Brianne Borcky scored 12 of her game-high 20 points in the third quarter as the fourth-seeded Jags defeated Spring-Ford, 65-64. GV had its best performance in the district tournament in team history.
Emily McAteer and Borcky have been the Jags’ top scoring threats all season. Nicole Barnes is a fantastic senior point guard, and forwards Liesl Dentinger and Madi McKee have contributed on defense and offense.
Elizabethtown (19-8) is the No. 4 seed out of District 3 and enters the state tournament with back-to-back losses. Marena Lonardi, a junior forward, is one player to watch on the Bears. The winner gets the O’Hara-Upper Dublin winner.
In a Class 2A first-round game Friday:
Sacred Heart vs Tacony Charter, at Bensalem, 5
The Lions (14-10) defeated Delco Christian to win the District 1 championship for a second year in a row. Eileen Piombino, a senior guard, is coach Zach Shuler’s top offensive player and a 1,000-point scorer. Junior power forward/center Kyra Quigley is a scoring threat and sensational defender, while sophomore Kayleigh Doyle thrives as a two-way guard who can run the point, shoot and force turnovers.
Tacony (13-8) is the fourth-place team from District 12. It has losses to two of the Catholic League’s less-heralded teams, Hallahan and Conwell-Egan.
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