To say that most people figured Villa Maria Academy’s basketball team would have enough ammunition to make a bunch of noise in the postseason would be, well, inaccurate.
For good reason.
When you lose four standout starters and then need to rely on one primo performer and a horde of relatively inexperienced underclassmen, expectations are understandable muffled.
To the detriment of their opponents, the Hurricanes ignored the cloudy forecast and instead chose to follow a Pied Piper named Kathy McCartney, now in her 27th year year as Villa’s coach. Whatever she said, they listened. Wherever she took them, they followed.
“We pull for each other, and if someone needs to be picked up, we take care of her as though she was our sister,” said junior Molly Namiotka.
“She has a way of making sense out of everything and knowing how to motivate us,” said junior Molly Namiotka. “Every single one of us trusts her.”
Villa’s season came to an end Tuesday night, about one month later than most had prognosticated and, amazingly, only one win shy of being a state finalist.
Despite four quarters of hustle and determination, Villa dropped a 44-39 decision at William Tennent High School. The loss was Villa’s first since losing to Mount St. Joseph’s Academy in the Catholic Academies League championship.
After that disappointment, the Hurricanes were seeded first in the Class AAA District One tournament and were granted a bye. Three wins later, highlighted by a championship triumph against surprising and stubborn Merion Mercy Academy, Villa Maria had captured its third consecutive district title.
“We weren’t supposed to have a realistic chance of making the tournament, let alone winning it,” Namiotka said. “In the beginning of the year, we went through our share of growing pains. But we got better, and sometime during the middle part of the season, we started to gel.”
Most of the credit for Villa’s ultimate record of 24-6 goes to senior Lisa Mirarchi. One of the area’s best point guards, Mirarchi led the Hurricanes in both scoring and assists and became the fourth Hurricane to reach 1,000 career points. When chaos reared its annoying head, Mirarchi doubled as a pseudo coach on the court.
Meanwhile, four juniors developed into bona fide standouts. Namiotka was joined by Mora Fetterolf, Jackie Carlin and Devon Tierney in the starting lineup. Senior Lexi Daggett, sophomore Katie Mooney and freshman Marielle Picinich provided capable depth off the bench.
For players such as sophomore Danielle Knopp, cheering from the bench instead of contributing on the court became less frustrating because of Villa’s steady improvement; why fix something that isn’t broken?
“Every player wants to play as much as possible,” said Knopp, “but you have to wait your turn and do whatever you can to help. But when you have the kind of players we have, it’s not as hard as it might be. They’re great leaders. They set a good example for the younger players, and we have a lot of them.”
Knopp was one of several Hurricanes who used the word “family” to describe Villa’s program. Perhaps that was never more evident than after the state semifinal loss to Bethlehem Catholic.
Losing a marquee game by five points after having trailed and then battled back to force a tie late in the fourth quarter produced understandable sadness. In the locker room, players reported that tears flowed.
However, the Hurricanes emerged from their post-game huddle emotionally strong, to the point of organizing an impromptu late-night dinner at a restaurant after returning to their school in Malvern.
“Someone started to tell a joke and we were in better moods by the time we left Tennent,” Namiotka said. “That’s what happens. We don’t stay disappointed too long. We really are a family in that way. We pull for each other, and if someone needs to be picked up, we take care of her as though she was our sister.”
Namiotka said the thought of losing a player with the ability of Mirarchi “hasn’t really hit” her quite yet. Replacing her overall contribution will probably be a futile attempt.
That said, Villa will return four starters next year, so instead of being under the radar, the Hurricanes will have the proverbial bull’s eye on their uniform as they aim to seize their fourth straight district crown and hopefully advance two huge steps closer to state supremacy.
Orchestrating the metamorphosis from underdog to favorite will be McCartney.
“Can’t say enough about ‘Cart,'” Namiotka said. “She not only teaches us how to be good players on the court, but more importantly, how to be good people off the court.”
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.