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Downingtown East, Great Valley lead Chesco contingent into district playoffs

WEST CHESTER >> Eight girls basketball teams from Chester County have earned a berth into the upcoming District 1 Tournament. And even though none of the seeds are higher than third (or lower than 17th), there are more than a few squads that can make some serious noise.

“District 1 is the toughest in the state,” said Downingtown East head coach Tom Schurtz. “There are no easy games. It really doesn’t matter where you are seeded.”

Fresh off successfully defending its Ches-Mont championship, Schurtz’s squad is the hottest local squad right now, having won seven in a row, including a romp over Great Valley in the league final. Downingtown East (18-6 overall) is flying a bit under the radar in Class 6A, however, because of its ninth seed.

“I hope so. I think so,” said Cougars’ star center Bella Smuda, when asked if her team is a sleeper.

More on that later.

At Class 5A, local teams make up nearly half of the top-10 seeds, with No. 3 Great Valley (20-4) and No. 4 Villa Maria (15-7) leading the way. The others include (6) West Chester East, (7) Bishop Shanahan and (11) and West Chester Henderson.

“The Ches-Mont is well represented,” said Patriots’ head coach Alex Venarchik. “Do you want to face a Ches-Mont team? No, because you know it is going to be a battle.”

It’s no coincidence that Venarchik’s squad would face the W.C. East-W.C. Henderson winner if Great Valley can get past 14th seeded Pope John Paul in round one next Tuesday.

“East vs. Henderson is going to be a battle and we can’t sleep on Pope John Paul,” Venarchik warned.

The Patriots went 10-0 en route to winning the Ches-Mont American Division. And despite a 63-36 loss to Downingtown East in the league title game, Great Valley still managed to go toe-to-toe with the Cougars in the second half.

“We are going to hit the re-set button,” Venarchik said. “We have a week off to rest and get healthy. We were 20-4, but now we are 0-0. It’s a fun second season we are about to enter.

“The Ches-Mont Playoffs will give us experience for districts. There is going to be that playoff atmosphere and you are going to have adrenaline every game. This was a good learning experience.”

The East Vikings (16-7) will host the Henderson Warriors (12-10) in round one on Tuesday. East prevailed in the last meeting but Henderson clobbered East on the road in the first meeting back in December.

“We’ve played (Henderson) twice already and know that they are tough to beat,” said Vikings’ leading scorer Lauren Klieber.

“We’ve played them, Shanahan and Great Valley, and they are all on our side of the bracket.”

Villa Maria (15-7) will take on No. 13 Academy Park in its opener. The Hurricanes have had a nice season despite losing Paige Lauder to a knee injury. She has signed to play NCAA Division I basketball at Columbia.

Under first-year head coach Jim Powers, Shanahan went 15-7 and draws No. 10 Radnor in the opener. And in 6A, (13) West Chester Rustin and (17) Unionville have a very difficult road just to get to the quarters. The Knights open against (20) Hatboro-Horsham, and the Indians get (16) Haverford in round one.

As for Downingtown East, the relatively low ninth seed is due to a very ambitious non-conference slate that included top-seed Plymouth Whitemarsh, Delone Catholic and Life Center Academy (N.J.). The Cougars lost all three, but are now battle-hardened.

“Playing against all of those tough teams will help us against the tough teams we are going to see now,” Smuda said.

“I feel like the more we play, the better we are getting.”

If, as expected, the Cougars get past (24) Upper Darby on Friday, they will earn a second round date with eighth-seeded Upper Dublin (17-7), who finished second in the Suburban One American. Another SOL squad, Plymouth Whitemarsh, would likely be waiting for that winner in the quarterfinals.

“I know the bracket we are in and I know the teams that we will be playing if we get by (Upper Darby),” said Schurtz, who used to coach at a third SOL school, Upper Merion, and still teaches there.

“If we rely on what we’ve been trying to do all season – solid defense, offensive aggression – thant we could find success. But this is District 1 and there are no guarantees.”

At this point, it sure looks like Downingtown East has developed into a squad with three very important attributes that can signal postseason success: experience, balance and team chemistry.

“We have players at every position that can score, and all of our starters are experienced,” said Smuda, a 6-foot-5 senior center, who will play at Division I Liberty.

“Plus, we are all best friends. Win or lose, everybody is there for each other.”

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