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Kyra Curci, Penncrest eye Central League playoff opener with confident edge

SPRINGFIELD — Penncrest’s Kyra Curci remembers what it was like to win one game her sophomore season.

Not fun at all.

Believe Curci when she tells you this isn’t the same down-on-its-luck Penncrest team that struggled to stay out of the Central League basement for years and years. Observing the Lions last winter, one may have thought they were on the right track. Rebuilding, but they had a ways to go.

Larry Johnson, the longtime women’s coach at PSU-Brandywine, was brought in last year to change the culture. He has won four PSUAC championships at Brandywine where he still serves as head coach. He splits his time between Brandywine and Penncrest.

After winning 10 games a season ago, nine more than the year prior, the Penncrest Lions started to think that maybe they could compete with the Central League’s top programs.

“I think we realized that we were done with what we had been doing for years,” Curci said following Penncrest’s loss at Springfield Tuesday. “We got a new coach, we’ve been building for about three years. And I think we came out with a new passion to play. We want to turn around the stereotype that Penncrest isn’t a sports school.”

The Lions are 14-8 overall and the sixth and final seed in the Central League tournament. In addition, they will likely qualify for the District 1 tournament in their first season as a Class 6A team.

Penncrest returns to Springfield Thursday to play the third-seeded Cougars in the quarterfinals of the league tournament. Tip off is 5:30. The Lions had won eight straight games before losing to Springfield Tuesday in the teams’ regular season finale.

“I’m really proud that the team started off strong. And then we had a few games that we lost, but we were able to pick our heads up and go on that winning streak,” junior Bailey Garrison said. “I’m really proud that we were able to turn it around and get ourselves a playoff spot. I know it means a lot to everyone that we were able to do this for our seniors.”

The Lions have not relied on one or two players to carry them this far. Johnson goes to his bench early and often, rotating several players. Garrison is their top scorer, but sophomore Alex Bruce, who had five assists Tuesday, is a rising star. Junior wing Emily Huggins has scored in double figures a handful of times. Junior forward Kathryn Harding and forward/center Chloe Griffiths provide the Lions with inside stability.

“We have built a lot of strong relationships with each other and good team chemistry,” said Curci, who starts at point guard.

The Lions had played well for one half Tuesday, but the Cougars seized control with a 14-2 run in the third quarter and never looked back. The Lions made too many mistakes with the ball. Springfield also beat them earlier in the season … and in every season over the last decade. Can the Lions go back to Springfield 48 hours later and pull off what would be a major upset? It’s improbable, but not impossible.

“We know what to expect now. We played them early in the season and it wasn’t our best game but we improved against them this game,” Curci said. “So we know what we need to work on and we’re going to work on it in practice. We’re going to make sure our third quarter isn’t as flat, just try to fix everything and be ready to play our best.”

• • •

The second quarterfinal pits No. 4 Garnet Valley (13-9) against fifth-seeded Radnor (14-8). The Jaguars are the defending Central League champions after winning their sixth title in eight years under longtime coach Joe Woods last February.

Garnet Valley and Radnor’s only meeting was a 54-44 Jaguars win Jan. 7.

The Jags were dealt a huge blow early in the 2022-23 campaign when junior forward Emily Olsen, projected to be one of the league’s best low-post scorers, suffered a season-ending injury. In Olsen’s stead the Jags have leaned on sensational sophomore guard Haylie Adamski, who is averaging around 14 points per game. Adamski scored a game-high 22 points against Marple Newtown in last year’s championship game.

Sophomore guard Kylie Mulholland has emerged as a solid all-around guard. Also averaging double digits in scoring, Mulholland has displayed an ability to score, pass and defend.

• • •

No. 1 Haverford (22-0) and No. 2 Conestoga (18-4) earned byes to the semifinal round.

Led by senior forward Caroline Dotsey, who is Delco’s leading scorer (17.5 ppg), the Fords will meet the lowest remaining seed, either Penncrest, Radnor or Garnet Valley, depending on how things shake out Thursday. Needless to say Haverford has had its way against all three teams, routing GV twice, including a 52-28 triumph over the Jags Tuesday night to close out the regular season.

Despite finishing with the same league record (14-2), Conestoga owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Springfield due to the Pioneers’ 39-35 win Jan. 19. ‘Stoga will meet the second-lowest remaining seed, either Springfield, GV or Radnor. Both of ‘Stoga’s league losses were at the hands of the Fords; 43-41 in overtime Dec. 8 and 36-33 Jan. 28.

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