Rosemont – The Harriton boys' and girls' basketball teams entered the final month of their seasons in similar situations - needing some key wins to qualify for the postseason.
The Harriton girls' team appeared to be limping towards the finish line in need of a spark to turn things around, while the boys' team was hanging by a thread of being a participant in the district playoffs or a spectator.
“As a coach you try and pinpoint the turning point of a season,” Harriton first-year girls' coach Kacy McNichol said. “So many of my coaching friends told me to be patient, that building a team takes time. I know clearly that our locker room post game at Lower Merion was it for this team. The girls looked so defeated.
"At 2-9 at that point, I told them in that moment that I don't know what it means to give up. My life has been faced with a long road playing basketball, and in college it was unexpectedly taken away as I faced many health concerns, recently just being diagnosed with MS. I asked them to stay positive, keep the faith in our team and fight for wins.”
With the Harriton girls team staring at a 4-11 record and losing 10 of its previous 12 games, it appeared as if Sophie Grady, Caroline DePillis and Amanda Costa would have an uneventful end to their career unless something changed.
Following the loss to Lower Merion Dec. 27, it was at that point McNichol could sense the season going in one of two directions.
Hoping they would get inspired by her message following the game, McNichol got her wish with her team, winning four of their last six games, including big wins over Radnor, Marple Newtown and Penncrest to clinch a berth in the District One Class 5A playoffs, where they eventually fell to state qualifier West Chester Henderson in the opening round.
With the seniors leading the way, the Rams also received solid contributions from many underclassmen including Brown, Meg Wilcox, Siobhan Daly-Gibson and Yaz Stewart.
“It meant a lot personally to make the district playoffs,” said senior captain Sophie Grady. “I think it sets a good example for the younger players that if you work hard good things happen.”
Sophomore Christina Brown echoed the sentiments of Grady, adding, “The three seniors (Grady, DePillis and Costa) helped us stay focused and it felt really good to make districts and send them out on a good note.”
The Harriton boys' team overcame its own adversity, playing six games without senior co-captain Will Esposto, who separated a shoulder late in the third quarter of a close win at Radnor Dec. 16.
With everyone encouraging him to go to the hospital to have his shoulder examined, Esposto refused to leave until the final horn and his team had earned the win, getting solid leadership from fellow senior Idris Ransom along with key play from underclassmen including Griffin Berkowitz and Nick Bugbee.
“Idris stepped up like he did all season and like Rap (Coach Rappaport) said our young kids have been preparing for moments like that,” said Esposto, who was just named first team All Central League. “They play hard and really care about the program. They want to win and it showed.”
Harriton boys' head coach Jesse Rappaport said, “We were fighting for our playoff lives. We had some tough games coming up and knew we needed to win.”
Entering the final couple of weeks, the Rams needed a spark following a loss at home against Radnor. With a tough road to hoe, the Rams ran off wins over eventual Class 5A champion Penncrest, Pottsgrove, Haverford High, Springfield (Delco) and Marple Newtown to clinch their berth in the post-season.
Making the run special was that it was a different player each night that stepped up for a roster comprised of mainly underclassmen to accompany the senior leadership.
“It meant a lot to me to make district playoffs,” Esposto said. “We missed out the previous two seasons and I wanted to play in a district playoff game. I told the underclassmen how much fun it is and I wanted to play in one.”
“All season the seniors have been encouraging,” said Nick Bugbee. “They told me all season to look for my shot and once it started falling my confidence went sky high. I was so happy for the seniors we could make districts.”
Although the district playoffs ended sooner than everyone would have hoped for both the Harriton girls' and boys' teams, it provided a good base for both teams that return key players from this year's teams.
“We came together at the right time and ended the season strong,” Costa said. “It felt great to make districts and hopefully that will serve as a good lesson for the underclassmen.”
DePillis added, “This year was very special and to see it end with us playing well means a lot. Hopefully the underclassmen will continue what we started.”
“I expect a lot out of our upperclassmen, to be leaders,” McNichol said. “To set a good example with their effort. I asked many players to step up and play roles on our team that they never played before. This was a new level for a lot of our young kids and we are hoping that this year they got the experience to help us build for our future.”
“Having different guys step up each night was definitely a key to our success,” said Rapapport. “Our seniors were tremendous leaders and I believe they set our younger kids up for future success.”