Liz Bernstein’s first season as Pope John Paul II girls basketball coach had its ups and downs in terms of wins and losses, but through it all was the thread that can carry a team a long way: a unified fiber.
They played very hard and together, and indeed, it has brought them far – to a second straight appearance in the PIAA Class 3A state tournament. Saturday in the first round the Golden Panthers (15-11), the No. 3 seed from District 1, will play Mastery Charter North (21-7), the runner-up in District 12, at 4:30 at South Philadelphia High School.
“Our coaching staff saw what they could be capable of doing, and it was a matter of these kids buying into our philosophy offensively and defensively, trusting their teammates and being relentless in everything that we do,” Bernstein said. “And that really is the pillar for what our program is all about.
It’s all the more impressive the Golden Panthers got this far considering the graduation of several key seniors from last year’s 19-8 club. The examples and performances of PJP’s three seniors this season -Gabby Troisi, Stephanie Petery and Annie Kohutka – were pivotal in the team’s return to states. LeadingtheCharge
“At the start of our season, we met with the three seniors and really empowered them to take a leadership role and embrace that, because really it was a completely new program from the perspective of players,” Bernstein said. “We asked them to understand their responsibilities, which was really to mentor the younger kids.”
Troisi, a terrific penetrator and passer who committed to play at West Chester, capped an exceptional high school career, averaging 16.1 points.
“Gabby is an innately athletically-gifted player, and it has been a pleasure to coach her,” Bernstein said. “She is an extremely difficult matchup for any team because of her ability to play facing and back to the basket. Her greatest strength is her floor vision. As a group they’ve been working together to understand, ‘Gabby’s going to see me open, and I just have to be ready to get that pass from her.’ She’s a playmaker.”
Petery (11.3 points) strengthened the frontcourt along with junior 6-footer Shannon Mullen. Kohutka (21 3-pointers) formed a solid backcourt with junior point guard Rachel Yerger (7.0 points, 24 3s).
“Rachel had a tremendous year stepping into a leadership role on the floor, and really is our warrior because she leaves everything she has out there when she plays,” Bernstein said. “She takes control of situations when we need her to, and she knows she has the green light when we need outside shooting.
“They all work very well together and complement each other, because we have the inside presence with both Steph and Shannon, the excitement from Gabby, who can play both inside and out, and the perimeter presence with Annie and Rachel.”
Mastery Charter poses an interesting challenge. The Pumas score at a consistently high clip. The key is holding them to 50. In their 21 wins, the Pumas averaged 60.9 points. In seven defeats, they dipped to 50.6. PJP has held opponents to an average of 44 points while scoring at a 51.2 pace.
Eight Puma players average at least 6 points, led by junior point guard Tahniyyah Jackson’s 10.9 average. Senior swing guard Shaquaya Matthews checks in at 10.3, followed by junior SF/SG Ayanna Mazyck (9.3), sophomore guard Nahiemah Johnson (8.4), senior PF Malika Douglas (7.4), junior perimeter player C’ilah Womack (7.1), junior guard Tahmiyyah Jackson (6.5) and senior swing guard Kayla Lewis (6.2).
“They’re extremely athletic, very quick, they like to press, and they have an inside presence (6-foot junior Devia Terry, who averages 5.8),” Bernstein says. “Their quickness and our ability to handle the ball and handle pressure will be pivotal to how we do. If we can keep our composure and just not play to their pace, and we dictate the game tempo, we’ll be OK.”
The Pumas and PJP have one common opponent, Merion Mercy Academy. PJP beat Merion Mercy 56-51 in the District 1 third-place game. Mastery Charter fell to Merion Mercy 59-54 on Dec. 29. The Pumas were rolling until losing by two to Imhotep Charter in the Public League final and to mighty Archbishop Wood by 22 in the District 12 title game.
PJP won the Frontier Division (with a 10-3 mark) of the Pioneer Athletic Conference and won respect overall with the way it played. Their confidence has grown through the postseason. After falling in the PAC-10 semifinals to Boyertown, the Pumas clicked off district victories over Villa Joseph Marie and Merion Mercy to earn the state berth. Petery (17 points), Troisi (16) and Yerger (12) came up big in that close, survive-and-advance third-place game.
Today’s winner will play the victor of Bethlehem Catholic-Abington Heights next Wednesday.
“I would say these young ladies are very battle-ready,” Bernstein said. “There’s not really a great deal they have not seen over the course of the entire season. They’ve had to battle out of some deficits, won some games handily, and they’ve come back. They’ve been able to persevere and stay composed, and that’s absolutely going to be of value when we face Mastery Charter.”