NEW HOLLAND >> Spring-Ford’s girls basketball team had a tall task when it began its season.
Coming off a state runner-up finish and having to replace the majority of last year’s rotation, the then-inexperienced Rams needed to find their own identity.
Spring-Ford found that identity some time late in the regular season — grinding out opponents on the defensive end and playing smart, unselfish on the opposite end of the floor. The result was a surprise run into the District 1 Class 6A championship and now the PIAA quarterfinals.
The Rams continued to stick to their formula in a 39-31 victory over District 3 fifth seed Central York in Friday’s second round win at Garden Spot, clinching the Rams a spot in the state quarters in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2013 and 2014. They will face District 3 champion Central Dauphin, a 65-50 winner over District 1 five seed Abington, on Tuesday.
“It’s a great feeling and no one thought we could do it,” Spring-Ford’s lone senior Kamryn Pufko said. “So it’s just a really fun and exciting feeling.”
With the help of nine first-half points from sophomore Katie Tiffan and some tough defense, Spring-Ford jumped out to an early lead in Friday’s game.
Sophomore Anna Azzara scored 14 and classmate Mac Pettinelli finished with seven — the two combining for 20 of the Rams’ 21 second-half points to hold off Central York junior Bella Chimienti (17 points) and the Panthers’ late run.
“I think we worked really well together and we kept passing the ball, especially in their zone,” Tiffan said. “We kept getting it to the middle and working around and finding the best shot we could.”
Tiffan scored the Rams’ (25-7) first seven points as they jumped out to a 9-1 first-quarter lead. That advantage extended to 15-1 in the second quarter before Central York (22-7) netted its first field goal with 4:52 left in the period.
“I’m just really proud of the way they grinded the game out,” Spring-Ford coach Mickey McDaniel said. “(Central York) is really well-coached and they run some great sets.
“I thought we did a really nice job defending those sets, especially at the beginning of the game we got them off to a tough shooting start and I thought that had a big part to do with our defense and the coaching staff and the game plan they put in the assistant coaches.”
The Panthers didn’t let the game get out of reach, however, outscoring Spring-Ford 9-3 to end the period and trailing just 18-10 at halftime.
Helped by Chimienti, who had eight points in the third, the Panthers trimmed the Rams’ lead down to six multiple times in the third quarter.
After a quiet first half, Azzara scored six points in the period to make sure Central York never got closer than that, helping the Rams maintain a 30-20 advantage heading to the fourth.
The Rams tallied just one field goal in the fourth — an Azzara bucket off a feed from Pufko — but Azzara, Pettinelli (3-for-4) and Aaliyah Solliday (1-for-2) combined to go 7-for-10 at the foul line and Spring-Ford was able to play enough keep away to keep things mostly smooth sailing down the stretch.
“Just the hustle plays, rebounding, getting the loose balls,” Pufko said of the keys to the win. “Everyone just working together and just picking each other up and staying positive.”
Listed at 5-foot-5, Pufko helped limit Central York junior six-foot forward Mackenzie Wright-Rawls to just seven points in what could have potentially been a big mismatch for the Rams.
On offense, Pufko, who scored six points and tallied a handful of assists, and Pettinelli were also essential in helping the Rams function against the Panthers’ zone by making passes out of the middle.
“We just try to know where we’re going with the pass before we get the ball and just swing it around quick,” Pufko said.
The Rams finished the regular season as the No. 12-ranked team in District 1 and now are one of the final eight Class 6A teams remaining in the state.
Dating back to the end of the regular season, the Rams have won 11 of their last 12 games — two regular season, three PAC, four District 1 and two PIAA — with the only loss coming to Plymouth Whitemarsh in the District 1-6A title game last Saturday.
The run started after taking then-league favorite Methacton to the brink in a Feb. 1 loss before handling Owen J. Roberts and Bishop Shanahan in their final two regular season games.
“That was definitely a turnaround,” Pufko said. “We knew we had to get to get it together, just work hard at practice. That was a turning point in our season.”
McDaniel is excited to see this young group — the core of which will likely have two more seasons together — keep their season alive as long as possible.
The Rams believe they can ride that momentum at least a little while longer.
“It’s really cool,” said Tiffan, whose older sister Emily was one of the leaders of last year’s run to the state title game. “I’m glad to be here, and I think we’re just playing really well, and I think we can make it even farther.”
PIAA Class 6A Playoffs
Spring-Ford 39, Central York 31
Central York: Bacha 0 4-4 4, Chimienti 5 7-8 17, Long 1 0-0 3, Croutherland 0 0-0 0, Merritt 0 0-0 0, Wright-Rawls 3 1-3 7, Bond 0 0-0 0, Totals 9 12-15 31.
Spring-Ford: Solliday 0 1-2 1, Miller 0 0-0 0, Azzara 4 6-8 14, Pufko 2 2-2 6, Tiffan 4 0-1 9, Pettinelli 1 5-6 7, Robbins 1 0-2 2, Totals 12 14-21 39.
Central York 1 9 10 11-31
Spring-Ford 9 9 12 9-39
3-point goals: CY – Long; SF – Tiffan.