Springfield freshman Valerio gets defensive when it counts

PHILADELPHIA — Mia Valerio didn’t let the bright lights of the Liacouras Center rattle her Saturday.

The Springfield freshman waited for the perfect moment to make her mark on the Cougars’ 29-27 victory over Great Valley for the District 1 Class 5A championship.

Valerio, along with classmate Lexi Aaron, was called on in the first quarter. In close games, the fearless freshmen are coach Ky McNichol’s first two players off the bench. They have earned McNichol’s trust and confidence.

Aaron grabbed two rebounds and was a steady hand on defense. Valerio tried to ignite Springfield’s struggling offense in the third quarter by driving to the basket. She was fouled on the way to the basket, then converted one of her two free-throw attempts.

It was in the fourth quarter that Valerio made a difference.

Great Valley was desperate to seize momentum away from the Cougars, who had led most of the second half. The Patriots trailed by two points when Emily DuPont came up with a steal and had a one-on-one path to the basket. Out of nowhere, Valerio swooped in and knocked the ball away from DuPont. Valerio corralled the ball near the baseline and was fouled with three minutes to go.

It was a heady, veteran move made by a youngster.

“I saw her going down and thought, this is my chance,” Valerio said. “I thought that I had to do what I can to stay in this game.”

Valerio’s hustling defensive play didn’t clinch anything for the Cougars, but who knows how the game would have turned out had she not made a play in that particular moment. Every possession was magnified in what was a low-scoring, defensive battle.

DuPont was heating up, too. She made a layup and made two free throws earlier in the quarter. Had she scored on that subsequent drive, McNichol probably would have called a timeout to regroup.

“Mia Valerio stepped up huge for us today on the defensive end of the floor,” McNichol said. “Coming in here, in a big atmosphere like this, she went out there and played really hard. We love our freshmen, they’ve bought into everything we’ve asked them to do. The older kids have taken them under their wings and have showed them what Springfield basketball is all about.”

Valerio never imagined playing at Temple University as a high school freshman. And she didn’t see herself on the court late in a close game and having one of her plays make such an impression.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “Having this opportunity as freshmen is just making us so much better in the future. It’s a lot of pressure, but I think we got it done.

“I’ve learned how supporting your teammates brings everyone together. That makes the game so much easier, to be able to connect with your teammates.”

Valerio’s defense is her speciality. In time, she should grow into a scoring threat for the Cougars. Both Aaron and Valerio are gaining valuable experience this season as supportive pieces. Soon, they will be leaders.

To prepare herself for what’s yet to come, Valerio has studied how senior co-captains Alyssa Long and Carli Johnston carry themselves and wishes to one day be like them. There is a parallel. Not long ago, those seniors were freshmen, and doing whatever they could to help the Cougars win a district title.

As she proved Saturday at the Liacouras Center, Valerio seems to have what it takes to succeed them.

“When I think of the word captain, I think of both Alyssa and Carli,” Valerio said. “They do everything a captain should do and I look up to them. They make hustle plays, big plays when we need it, and they lead by example. In the future, if I ever become a captain, I want to become just like that. Alyssa and Carli have been like big sisters to me, they took me under their wing, and I’m forever grateful to them.”

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