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Hard work pays off for Plymouth Whitemarsh

Plymouth Whitemarsh's Erin Daley (15) takes a shot against Great Valley in the second round of the District 1-6A playoffs. (Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group)

When Plymouth Whitemarsh clinched its spot in the state championship game Friday night, all five starters had a similar reaction – hard work pays off.

Seniors Katlyn Flanagan, Fiona Gooneratne, Lainey Allen and Jordyn Thomas, who missed the last two games with a non-COVID illness, have been working towards a state championship for four years. Juniors Erin Daly and Abby Sharpe have been at it for three.

The Colonials set lofty goals before they even held their first practice before this season.

“We said we want to win league, we want to win SOL, we want to win districts,” Sharpe said of three titles PW has already won this year, “then we want to go all the way to states. To be in this position that we are actually going to the state final – it’s just a crazy overwhelming feeling. It just goes to show all of our hard work and all of our hours that we put in – it’s just such a fulfilling feeling and we’re all really excited about it. (The end of the semifinal win over Cedar Cliff) was just a really emotional feeling that we’re here and it’s time to take it all the way and finish it.”

The high expectations were a result of what this group accomplished in its first two high school seasons together. When the seniors were sophomores and juniors were freshman in 2019-20, the Colonials won the Suburban One League American Conference championship, reached the district semifinals and were still alive in the state quarterfinals when COVID stopped the season. Last year they won the SOL Liberty Division and reached the district championship game. They lost to Spring-Ford and didn’t get to compete in states due to a smaller field because of the pandemic.

Now 76-6 over three seasons – including 6-0 in state playoff games – the Colonials get their chance at the program’s first state championship. They face District 7 champion Mt. Lebanon (27-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday at the GIANT Center in Hershey.

“It’s been a little bit like a unicorn,” PW coach Dan Dougherty said. “We keep saying every year, ‘We want to win a state championship,’ but now that it’s actually here, it is just surreal. We talked to the kids beforehand – no one owes us anything. Just because of COVID this, or COVID that, no one owes us anything. These other teams want to win too. Just the sheer joy at the end of the (semifinal) and in the locker room right there, it’s sinking in. Oh my gosh, we’re actually going to Hershey.”

The 2021-22 team has gotten to this point with an unblemished 33-0 record by preparing for every team like it’s a state championship game.

“We just rise to the challenge and we never underestimate a team,” Flanagan said. “That’s also a big thing that we harp on. We come in thinking this is the best team we’ve ever played every single game and we get ourselves in that mentality so we try to come out strong.”

The constant preparation goes back to before the season started on Dec. 14. Always looking ahead to what was next, The Colonials haven’t had the chance to really enjoy what they’ve accomplished so far this season. With a break between the semifinal on March 18 and the championship on March 26, Dougherty wanted the team to have a chance to celebrate all they’ve done and it started with Shamrock Shakes on the way home from Friday night’s win.

“It feels really nice to have this weekend to just kind of enjoy this and not focus on jumping right into another game,” Gooneratne said. “I think we really appreciate being able to appreciate what we’ve done and reflect on how much our hard work is really paying off.”

The week off also helps a PW team that’s been shorthanded the last two games with Thomas’ illness. Including Thomas, the Colonials typically go seven deep with Gooneratne and junior Angelina Balcer coming off the bench. It was a six-girl rotation in the semifinals and everyone was carrying an ice bag or sporting bumps and bruises during the postgame celebration, but that toughness is another aspect that makes this PW team successful.

“We are pretty beat up,” Daley, who took a key charge against Cedar Cliff, said. “Just knowing that when we fall down our teammate will be right there to pick us up and vice versa. If I go down, my teammate is going to be there. If my teammate goes down, I’ll be there. You just know that all my teammates are going to give the same amount of aggression that I will, the same amount of heart, same amount of hard work. We just love all playing together at the same level of aggression and speed that we will play with and we will be able to stop teams on the defensive end.”

The Colonials have gotten this type of rest three times this year. The first time they returned with a 30-point win over Tatnall, one of the four best teams in the state of Delaware. The second time they beat Abington, a state qualifier, by 12. The third time they opened the District 1 playoffs with a 53-9 win over Great Valley.

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