Archbishop Wood accomplished the same goal of a state championship in the 2015-16 season and 2016-17 season, but did so in very different ways.
As two of the four semifinalists in the Reporter/Times Herald/Montgomery Media girls’ basketball team of the decade bracket, the Vikings fourth and fifth state champion teams are trying to set up a meeting in the bracket final. While a few of the names were the same, getting to Hershey and winning those back-to-back titles needed two sets of blueprints.
No. 1 Wood (2015-16) faces No. 5 Souderton (2017-18) while No. 11 Wood (2016-17) faces No. 2 CB West (2014-15) in the semifinals with voting still open on Twitter at @ReporterSports.
“The 2017 team didn’t have as much talent or size but they were on a mission all year,” Wood coach Mike McDonald, who led the Vikings to both those state titles, said. “The 2016 team was just on a roll. We opened up 4-6 and had kind of a blow-up meeting, put everything on the table and made sure we were playing together.”
The 2015-16 season opened with Wood returning four of its five starters from a loss in the PCL and state title games the year prior. With senior forward Bailey Greenberg and senior point guard Claire Bassetti serving as captains, the Vikings rolled out an imposing lineup that included sophomore forwards Katie May and Kate Connolly as well as junior guard Cassie Sebold.
It didn’t mean everything went perfectly out of the gates. Within that 4-6 record was a 1-2 start in the PCL with losses to Neumann-Goretti and Cardinal O’Hara that prompted Wood to come together and get on the same page. The Vikings won their next three, starting a winning streak they would carry to the end of the season but things still hadn’t totally clicked yet.
“We played Penn Charter at a showcase at USciences and that was the turning point,” McDonald said. “We were down by seven at halftime and we flipped a switch. Things were negative at that point so we said ‘let’s be positive and get on a roll’ and that’s when Claire Bassetti and Bailey Greeberg took over the team and everybody followed suit.”
Greenberg, who was named state player of the year, and Bassetti graduated while a handful of players including Connolly transferred out of the program after the 2015-16 season ended. With just two starters and a group of talented but mostly unproven players around them, the Vikings entered the2016-17 with lowered expectations from an external viewpoint.
All that did was serve to light a fire under the group, which had some extremely competitive personalities like seniors Sebold, Shannon May, Meg Neher and Karly Brown. They didn’t have a near-automatic bucket like Greenberg and they were a little bit smaller but the Vikings were going to defend like crazy and play harder than the opponent.
“Everybody thought with all the kids that left, we weren’t going to be that good and they went and did whatever it took to win games,” McDonald said. “It was not pretty, in fact when it got to states it got even uglier.”
After beating Penn Charter, the 2015-16 team ripped off five PCL wins in a row then met defending Delaware state champion Ursline Academy at the end of January in a showcase. For the Vikings, this was their measuring stick and a win would extend their streak to 10 games.
“I remember Bassetti talking to me about it, they said this is the one where we know where we are and how good we can be,” McDonald said. “(Ursuline) won the state championship the year before and they would end up winning it that year but we just went out there and manhandled them. We were up by 20 at halftime and I think 30 by the end of the third quarter, it was one of our best games on both ends of the floor.”
Things also started a bit slowly the next season as Wood went 3-4 to open the schedule although just one of those games was played in the state of Pennsylvania. The new year brought a four game winning streak and in the PCL, nobody could figure out a way to beat the Vikings.
Wood turned its at-all-costs mentality into an identity, with Neher fighting for a key loose ball to help Wood secure a one-point win at Neumann-Goretti late in the season as the Vikings locked up an undefeated PCL record.
“They had a lot of pride,” McDonald said. “The (senior and junior classes) especially, winning the year before then having kids transfer out, I think they felt a little bit abandoned. Knowing people on the outside didn’t think they were going to be a good Wood team set a fire under them too but they bought into doing what it took to win.”
Following Ursuline, the 2015-16 team finished the regular season on a 12-game streak then avenged its earlier loss over O’Hara in the PCL semifinals to set up a rematch with Neumann-Goretti at the Palestra. The Saints entered with a 53-game PCL winning streak and no shortage of talent on their roster so the Vikings had their work cut out for them.
It took a monumental effort, but Wood emerged with a 40-36 win and their first PCL championship since the 2010-11 season.
“We did everything right in that game and once we beat them, we felt like there wasn’t anything that was going to stop our team in states,” McDonald said. “We felt like we were the better team going into those matchups but going up against Gwynedd (Mercy Academy), we know that was going to be tough.”
Wood, fresh off a 28-point dismantling of previous unbeaten Danville, met the Monarchs in a heavily anticipated quarterfinal many felt was worthy of a state final. The Vikings took advantage of an early lead and an injury that had forced GMA to adjust to move on with a 42-33 victory.
“(Monarchs coach) Tom Lonergan knows what he’s doing, we looked at that as being the hard one in states and it was,” McDonald said. “We figured if we could get past that one, we would get to the championship.”
Despite their perfect regular season PCL record, the 2016-17 Vikings weren’t able to repeat at the Palestra and fell to a strong Cardinal O’Hara team. McDonald noted that loss has been the toughest one for Vikings teams to get past over the years but fueled by the rosters’ collective drive, the 16-17 squad knew it could still win a state title.
It certainly wasn’t a clean run as Wood had to battle past West Chester Henderson before slogging past Bishop Shanahan in a 28-25 win keyed by a late Katie May basket. Even in the state semifinals, Wood fell behind Susquehannock by double-digits before chipping away and winning 56-41.
“Having so many kids who had gone through it the 2016 year was so important for the 2017 team,” McDonald said. “They had that experience, they saw the results of what it meant to play together, they knew what it took to compete all the time.”
With their streak now at 20, the 2015-16 team entered the state final against nationally ranked 29-0 Villa Maria out of Erie. Greenberg and Wood’s defense proved too much for Villa Maria to overcome and the Vikings went on to a 46-29 win, completing their season on a 21-game winning streak and hoisting their first state title since 2011-12.
It was a moment of celebration and accomplishment for that group, especially Greenberg and Bassetti, but also laid a foundation for the next season. Between the two teams, more than a dozen players would go on to play college basketball with several more having offers and choosing a different option.
“Villa Maria was talented, they had a lot of Division I recruits, size and had been there before,” McDonald said. “We knew they were good but our team went into every game thinking they were the better team and they were going to win and there was nothing to take that confidence away once we won the Catholic League championship.
“Bailey and Claire were great leaders, we had younger kids who were now a year more experienced, we had enough size and good guards who could pressure and defend anybody, we just had a really good combination of kids who fit together on a basketball court.”
A year later, the Vikings would meet another team from the northwest part of the state. Again, it wasn’t a high-scoring or pretty game but Wood picked up the 34-26 win even with soon-to-be first team all-state pick Katie May playing much of the second half with four personal fouls.
Sebold (second team) and Shannon May (third team) would also earn all-state honors for a team that played better than the sum of its parts and embraced the whatever-it-takes mentality. Shannon May played the last two rounds with a hurt shoulder while players like Brown and Neher weren’t afraid to be tough and do things that wouldn’t show up in a line score.
“They were a great team of great leaders, disciplined and really put winning first,” McDonald said. “They were all the same kids, it’s just another year of practicing and working out. They were better, a year older and we try to get as many kids in as we can during the year so when it is their opportunity, they’re ready.”
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