As the 2015-16 basketball season approached, the only expectation the Gwynedd Mercy Academy girls basketball team put on itself was to enjoy the ride.
The Monarchs’ four seniors had helped orchestrate a quick turnaround for the program and they wanted to win as much as possible but the overall goal was to just keep the season going as long as possible. A promising season the year before was the foundation and thanks to the seniors, would set a path for the program.
By the end of the season, they’d done more than that and established themselves as one of the top teams in the entire state.
“We all just wanted to have fun and make the most of our senior year,” co-captain Erica DeCandido said. “We didn’t have a lot of expectations, which is what I think made us so great because we just wanted to go out there and do the best we could.”
Seeded as the No. 13 team in the Reporter/Times Herald/Montgomery Media girls’ basketball team of the decade, the Monarchs advanced to the quarterfinals after a 51-49 win in reader voting over No. 4 Germantown Academy (2018-19) in the closest first round poll. GMA is up against No. 5 Souderton (2017-18) in second round voting, which can be found on Twitter at @ReporterSports.
When the 2016 class of seniors — DeCandido, Brigit Coleman, Maggie Cameron and Mary Casey — were sophomores, veteran coach Tom Lonergan took over the program and quickly started to change things. The team had pieces but had needed some new structure and direction, which Lonergan was able to give them and it resulted in a District 1 playoff appearance in 2013-14.
The next season, GMA took the next step. First, the Monarchs reached the AACA title game where they lost to rival Mount Saint Joseph, then won the District 1 title before losing in the opening round of the PIAA 3A tournament.
“We were excited because we had a lot of people coming back and having been so successful the year before, we knew we could go further,” Coleman, a co-captain, said. “What we were most looking forward to was going further in states and making history of some sort, going somewhere no team had gone. For ourselves, we just excited to play with each other and have as much fun as possible doing it.”
Coleman, who missed her sophomore season with an ACL injury, saw the progress the team made that season and was eager to be a part of it when she returned as a junior. The coaching staff had only refined the team’s strong defensive ability and installed a diverse, efficient offense that took advantage of the Monarchs’ skill inside and ability to shoot from the perimeter.
On top of the structured aspects, the seniors’ competitiveness started to influence the program. DeCandido and Coleman were going to play basketball in college, but Casey and Cameron were multi-sport athletes and had just as strong a will to win. The players in classes under them sensed it and added their own fuel to the fire.
“We had really good chemisty and we were all best friends,” DeCandido said. “We took a trip to Disney that year for a tournament and it helped build such good chemistry on and off the court. We didn’t want it to end and we were having so much fun because we were clicking and had different people coming off the bench contributing.”
The Monarchs posted a 25-5 record in the 2015-16 season, with their four regular season losses all coming by 10 points or less which Coleman said only built the team’s confidence as they went through the schedule. DeCandido was a force inside and Coleman a sniper from the perimeter, while Cameron was a lockdown defender at guard and Casey brought energy and hustle.
They still needed some help on the offensive end and got it from a few of the team’s younger players like sophomores Carly Heineman and Maura Conroy.
“It really helped, Gwynedd in previous year wasn’t that much of a basketball school so getting those players brought in more people who were really excited to do well,” Coleman said. “They brought more skill and more energy on the court and had more people who wanted to win and would go out there and give it their all.”
Gwynedd split its regular season series with the Mount and met the Magic again in the AACA title game. This time, it was the Monarchs who came out on top in a 35-28 game. Coleman called it an important win for the program, but also her senior class.
It also led to one of the more memorable moments of their tenure at Gwynedd Mercy Academy.
“We went in there and knew what we had to do,” DeCandido said. “We had our school dance that night, so I remember we rushed there and brought the trophy with us and started parading it around. Our school is so small that everyone had been there watching and celebrating so being part of a school like that, everyone is so supportive that it meant the world to everyone and to us.”
A few weeks later, they would repeat as District 1 champions and return to the state tournament. After two wins, the Monarchs found themselves paired up against Archbishop Wood in the quarterfinals. By then, GMA had done plenty to establish itself as top-level team and the matchup drew some hype as the two squads prepared.
Wood forward Bailey Greenberg had played her freshman year at Gwynedd Mercy, and the teams had plenty of familiarity with each other.
“I’ve played with Bailey Greenberg since I was little, we knew it was going to be a tough game but we tried to go in like it was another game and prepare like we didn’t know all their players,” DeCandido said. “I had to guard Bailey, so I couldn’t think it was one of my best friends I was playing against but just another opponent.
“Everyone said after the game it should have been the championship game and that we met too soon.”
One of the flaws in a pre-seeded bracket is every so often teams like GMA and Wood meet earlier than they should. The Vikings’ defense was the difference as Wood, the No. 1 seed in the team of the decade bracket, emerged with a 42-33 win on their way to a state title.
Coleman admitted the Monarchs played timid early but as the game went on, they recognized they belonged on the floor. They wouldn’t be able to rally, but the Monarchs had proven they deserved to be considered one of the state’s top teams that year and were one of just two squads to stay within 10 points of Wood during the Vikings’ 21-game win streak.
“Coming into the game, we were a little intimidated and we surprised ourselves that we came within 10 points of them,” Coleman said. “After the game, I think it was a statement to ourselves that we are that good and we can compete on that level. We saw we had a chance of winning against them and it was a huge statement that we were a lot better than we thought we were.”
Since the class of 2016 has graduated, the Monarchs have sustained their standard of success. The very next year, Heineman and Conroy helped GMA to the state semifinals in the new 4A classification and the program has been in the District 1 final and state tournament every year since 2015-16.
DeCandido went on to Tufts, where she was named the Division III Player of the Year for this past season. After dealing with another ACL injury, Coleman returned as a strong all-around contributor at USciences where she just wrapped up her career.
“It was fun putting Gwynedd on the map for basketball,” DeCandido said. “I went to a game this season when I was home and I’m glad people are still coming to the games. Once we came and set that legacy, people started to pay attention and I was glad to go back and see Gwynedd girls at the game with their faces painted and the spirit is still up.
“Mr. Lonergan is such an amazing coach, so I’m happy to see the girls are learning from him and so many are still going on to play in college.”
The seniors, and everyone else from that 2015-16 team, have stayed close.
“All together as a class, we take pride that we were the paving stone for Gwynedd but I credit that all to coach Lonergan,” Coleman said. “He’s the one who established that winning in the program and attracted players to the school who were there because they love basketball, want to work hard and want to win.
“I think a big reason why we were so successful when maybe we didn’t have as much talent as some other teams is we came to practice and games every day ready to work hard and work together and ultimately, that’s what gave us our success.”