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PAC Girls Basketball Final Six Preview: Spring-Ford looks for sixth straight conference crown

Spring-Ford's Anna Azzara, center, and Mac Pettinelli, right, celebrate after defeating Perkiomen Valley in a game earlier this season. (Austin Hertzog - MediaNews Group)

It’s not the road the Spring-Ford girls basketball team might choose, but it’s not an uncharted one. The five-time reigning Pioneer Athletic Conference champion Rams have sights set on No. 6 but it will require three wins over the next week, including an opening-round contest Thursday when the PAC championship tournament commences at Perkiomen Valley.

The No. 3 seed Rams, which won the title as the No. 5 seed in 2021-22, meet No. 6 Owen J. Roberts in the opening game of a first-round doubleheader at 6 p.m., followed by the matchup of No. 4 Pope John Paul II and No. 5 Methacton at 7:45 p.m.

The winners will meet division winners Perkiomen Valley (Liberty) and Phoenixville (Frontier), which earned first-round byes, in a Saturday evening doubleheader at PV.

A look at Thursday’s opening-round matchups:

No. 3 Spring-Ford vs. No. 6 Owen J. Roberts

Records >> Spring-Ford – 8-2 PAC Liberty, 11-2 PAC, 19-3 overall, No. 5 in District 1-6A rankings … Owen J. Roberts – 4-6 PAC Liberty, 7-6 PAC, 9-13 overall, No. 29 in District 1-6A rankings.

Head to head >> Spring-Ford swept the regular season meetings, 61-37 on Dec. 13 and 64-41 on Jan. 24.

PAC playoff history >> Spring-Ford has won the PAC a league-best 11 times, including five straight dating back to 2017-18. The Rams defeated Perkiomen Valley 43-36 in last year’s final … Owen J. Roberts is making its fourth straight trip to the PAC playoffs. Last year the Wildcats fell to eventual PIAA quarterfinalist Perkiomen Valley 51-42 in the opening round.

Spring-Ford at a glance >> Spring-Ford settled for second place in the Liberty after falling to Perkiomen Valley in a division title showdown, 44-37, on Feb. 2. That recent result deflects from what’s been an excellent season for Mickey McDaniel’s 19-3 team. After reaching the District 1 final and PIAA quarterfinals last season, the Rams squad remained almost fully intact and has had heaps of success, including tournament wins in Arizona at the Nike Tournament of Champions and Delaware at the Viking Invitational in December.

Junior guard Anna Azzara, who last week surpassed 1,000 career points, is the second-leading scorer in the PAC at 16.3 points per game. She’s the ball-handling offensive engine of the Rams and is complemented by fellow juniors Mac Pettinelli (9.5 ppg), Katie Tiffan (8.5 ppg), Siena Miller with senior Meg Robbins patrolling the paint (6.9 ppg). Lily Brescia and Haley Prophet are capable of providing a spark in reserve for the Rams.

Owen J. Roberts at a glance >> The Wildcats locked on the PAC’s second wild card spot with a 7-6 league mark with a matinee victory over Norristown on Feb. 3. A stacked PAC Liberty featuring three teams that reached the PIAA round of 16 a year ago proved difficult to navigate, but OJR won all its other league contests.

Senior three-sport star Gabbi Koury leads the Wildcats in scoring at 12.9 ppg, followed by junior Asya Price (10.8 ppg), who has returned from an ACL injury and eased the void left by the graduation of program top-scorer Avery White (Chestnut Hill). Sophomore Ashly White follows at 7.6 ppg, OJR’s only other player above 5 ppg. Coach Jeremy Mellon’s starting five also features senior Ava Clemson and junior Abby Smith. First off the bench are Sam Martins, Bella Winnick and Laina Grimm.

Matchup and prediction >> The Wildcats have the urgency of their season being on the line Thursday with the team residing outside district tournament qualification. Unfortunately for OJR, the other advantages are largely Spring-Ford’s. With victories of 24 and 23 points in their regular season meetings, the Rams have had too much firepower for the Wildcats. Spring-Ford averages 57.6 points per game, OJR only 39.2. The stats will bear out again … Spring-Ford 55, Owen J. Roberts 37.

No. 4 Pope John Paul II vs. No. 5 Methacton

Records >> Pope John Paul II: 6-3 PAC Frontier, 6-6 PAC, 8-11 overall, No. 4 in District 1-4A rankings … Methacton: 7-3 PAC LIberty, 10-3 PAC, 15-7 overall, No. 17 in District 1-6A rankings

Head-to-head >> The teams have not met this season. Their last meeting was on Jan. 20, 2022, a 53-19 win for Methacton.

PAC playoff history >> Pope John Paul II has qualified for the PAC playoffs for the fifth straight time. Last year PJP was Frontier Division champion, losing to Perk Valley in the semifinals. PJP’s all-time record in the PAC playoffs is 1-10, the Golden Panthers’ lone PAC playoff win coming in 2019, a 42-34 win over OJR. … The league tournament has been similarly unkind to Methacton, the seven-time runner-up. The Warriors fell to Spring-Ford in the semifinals last year, 49-33, after reaching the final in 2019 and 2020.

Pope John Paul II at a glance >> The Golden Panthers sure have a flare for the dramatic. PJP was well positioned to make PACs until a surprising loss to last-place Upper Perkiomen on Jan. 31. A game later, PJP had eight points through three quarters while hosting fellow playoff hopeful Upper Merion, only to rattle off 23 fourth-quarter points in a 31-23 win that booked PJP a spot in PACs.

Katie Nilles is the leading scorer at 7.6 ppg, followed by Nadie Platt (5.7 ppg) and Rylee Derecola (5.7 ppg). Sarah Bell and Morgan Hughes join the starting lineup. Coach Jack Flanagan employs a large rotation that also includes Sophia Benincasa, Grace Fitzgerald and Elena Colliluori.

Methacton at a glance >> The Warriors, led by longtime coach Craig Kaminski, have impressed this winter by maintaining the program’s standard despite the graduation of the PAC’s No. 2 all-time scorer Nicole TImko (Christopher Newport). Senior guard Cassidy Kropp and senior forward Mairi Smith have capably upped their contributions to lead the way. Kropp and Smith are third and fifth in the PAC in scoring, respectively.

Kropp became a 1,000-point scorer on Jan. 31 and averages 15.6 ppg and Smith comes in at 13.2 ppg. Sophomore wing Abby Arnold has come back from a concussion and is a capable third scorer at 9.1 ppg while senior Reana Torres (8.6 ppg) is a quality 3-point threat with a PAC-high 38. Guard Ashley Fisher rounds out the starting lineup and is followed off the bench by Morgan Coupe, Ava Cingiser and Courtney Freese.

Matchup and prediction >> You have to appreciate PJP’s dramatic method of qualifying for the PAC playoffs. But the level of competition is about to swing big. PAC Liberty teams went a combined 16-2 against the Frontier this season and Methacton has legitimate state tournament aspirations and a pair of senior leaders with playoff pedigree.

Methacton has reached the semifinals every season since the playoffs extended above four teams in 2016-17 and that streak will continue in emphatic fashion … Methacton 46, Pope John Paul II 21

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