ROYERSFORD >> When she’s 20, when she’s 30, when she’s 40, for as long as girls play basketball at Cardinal O’Hara High, Mary Sheehan plans to follow the same routine.
She will enter the gym.
She will look to the banners on the wall.
She will remember her senior season, and she will smile.
“It will say that we won the Catholic League,” Sheehan said. “And the two teams that we beat on the way will probably win state championships in their own right. I’m hoping for that. It’s a competitive league and it’s an historic league and I’ll have that memory forever.
“That memory will trump this one in the end.”
The Lions’ season had been over for about 15 minutes Monday night, punctured by a 16-foot jumper with 1.6 seconds left from Abigail Kapp that gave Boyertown a 39-37 victory in the semifinals of the PIAA Class 6A tournament. But that was plenty of time for the perspective to subdue the expectations. And there were expectations on the Lions, most from the outside, at least some from within, and they had been building for years.
A veteran team with a starting unit that had been together for at least two seasons, one with four Division I college recruits, a 24-5 league championship team with speed and an unselfish streak, simply was hit with the reality of single-elimination basketball. The Lions shot 15-for-51, missed 16 of their 19 three point attempts and a couple of free throws, and lost at the end when the long, Bucknell-bound Kapp downed the game-winner over a triple-team.
Such is the risk of smearing any season with a demand that it ends in victory, even if O’Hara had been so badgered for almost a full year. A legendary program for generations, O’Hara has never won a PIAA championship. The simple reason is that the Catholic League did not participate in the PIAA playoffs before the 2008-09 season, denying many dominating, talent-soaked, nationally recognized teams that opportunity. The Lions, though, have had some recent chances, including last season, when they fell in the PIAA final, then regrouped with the same basic unit to try it again.
For that, there was a certain, undeniable sting Monday at neutral-site Spring-Ford High. Fortunately, that Catholic League championship run, which included victories over Neumann-Goretti and Archbishop Wood, each still alive in lower-enrollment PIAA tournaments, provided an instant salve.
“I would think so,” O’Hara coach Linus McGinty said. “The Catholic League was a great win. We had to beat Wood and Neumann-Goretti. Nobody thought we would win. So, yeah, we did really well. This was the second time we shot this poorly all year. Honestly, we didn’t have the same energy we had the last 10 or 12 games. We’ve only played five kids a lot. I don’t know if that wore on them.”
The Lions competed, leading for most of the game, never behind by more than a point in the first half. And if the rough nature of the game wasn’t enough of a drain on their energy, maybe those persistent, haunting, state-championship expectations were an unfair burden, too.
“I think so,” McGinty said.
Junior Kenzie Gardler is committed to Villanova and classmate Maura Hendrixson is headed to Drexel. That will give McGinty a two-ply, Division I foundation next season, as O’Hara, never subdued for long, retools.
“We’re all disappointed,” said Hendrixson, whose 11 points, including three three-pointers, gave the Lions a chance Monday. “We all thought we were going to get back to Hershey. We were determined that we were going to make it back. We’re going to miss our seniors a lot.
“But we’re definitely going to still focus on the positives. We won the Catholic League. And we haven’t won that since we’ve been here.”
So there will not be another night in Hershey for the Lions. But there will be that night in the Palestra, before a capacity crowd, and a victory over Wood that earned a gifted team its rightful spot in the deep O’Hara girls basketball lore.
“We’re emotional now,” said the Saint Joseph’s-bound Sheehan, after scoring 15 points. “But to lose it in that form, when we were not hitting shots, then losing it on the last second when we had three girls on her, there was nothing you could do. Credit to her. She is a great player and it was a great shot.”
Even if it could have used at least one more, O’Hara did make enough shots to win 24 games.
“We just have trouble in the state final,” McGinty said. “We can’t win one. But I am grateful for the Catholic League. That was a tremendous accomplishment. If we could have topped it off, that would have been great. I really loved these kids. They were a special group.”
That banner in the gym, the one Mary Sheehan expects to enjoy for years, will provide that proof.
To contact Jack McCaffery, email him at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery
Top photo: Cardinal O’Hara’s Hannah Nihill and her Lions teammates were upset in the state semifinal game by Boyertown Monday night. But with a Catholic League championship banner handing in their gym, they will always be above the fray among the school’s most memorable sports teams (Photo by PETE BANNAN – DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA)