Williamsport girls basketball coach Derek Slaugther knows something about overcoming early-season adversity.
A guard on Williamsport's 1998-99 team that was upset in the district semifinals the year before, Slaughter was part of a powerful team which surprisingly started 2-2 that season. Turns out that slow start was just a mirage. All the Millionaires did after that was win their last 27 games and capture the Class AAAA state championship.
So when Slaughter talks about rough starts, his players understand he knows how to overcome them. That is exactly what the Millionaires are trying to do after opening 1-5. If last week's Montoursville Christmas Tournament is any indication, they are off to a good start. Those first games are now history and Williamsport is only focused on the future after capturing the tournament championship and winning the two games by 31 combined points.
Aisha Evans and Williamsport won the Montoursville Tournament this past week.
"What broke us makes us stronger," tournament MVP Rachel Fatherly said after a 46-31 championship win over Montoursville. "We went through a rough time, but our coach said we're starting over and it's a new season now, so this is our time to go."
Williamsport looked terrific in the second half of a 50-34 win over Loyalsock and in the first half against Montoursville, when it opened a 20-point halftime lead. At those times, the Millionaires (3-5) displayed an excellent inside-outside game, played swarming defense and spread out its scoring. Fatherly and Aisha Evans seemed unstoppable when they received the ball down low and Dominique Thomas made defenses pay for collapsing their defenses in the paint, draining eight 3-pointers in two games.
Point guard Yolanda Littles dealt 11 assists in those wins and the reserves started making an impact. The Millionaires have a demanding schedule in the new year so they have to keep improving, but getting some wins under their collective belt was just the tonic they needed.
"We're starting to execute now, we're starting to get our chemistry and we're starting to figure out our rotations," Slaughter said. "People are starting to understand their roles on the floor. If we continue to work hard, if we continue to improve each game we can make a run at things."
Williamsport entered the year with big expectations after reaching last year's district final and reaching the state tournament for the first time since 2005. Fatherly is closing in on 1,000 career points and Thomas and Littles were key contributors to last year's 19-win team. Evans, though, had a rough preseason, undergoing oral surgery and then having to deal with a death in her family. She missed three games and is just starting to get her basketball legs back.
Not having Evans at full strength was a big blow because she is one of the area's best players when 100 percent. As she gets back into the swing of things, Williamsport should become much tougher to beat, especially as players like Canisha Belle, Olivia Erb and Lydia Whaley start coming into their own.
And having Slaughter on the sideline is a nice little X-factor as pertains to potential future success.
"Derek does a tremendous job up there," Montoursville coach Kevin Kurtz said. "I've watched him over the years do what he's doing. He knew exactly how to attack us, he knew exactly how to play us and you have to give him credit."
LEARNING EXPERIENCE: Instead of packing it in against Williamsport after trailing 32-12 at halftime, Montoursville fought back and trimmed the deficit to 12 three times in the fourth quarter with more than four minutes remaining. The Warriors start five underclassmen, including two freshmen, but showed plenty of fight against last year's Class AAAA state qualifier.
Montoursville is seeking its first playoff appearance in a non-open format since 2003 so it is interested in more than moral victories. Still, outscoring Williamsport in the second half could give the Warriors an extra jolt of confidence entering the HAC-I season.
"The second half, absolutely we take some positives away from that," Kurtz said. "We told the girls you play hard, you play fast for that first four minutes of the third quarter and they did and we made a game of it. It's a learning step for us moving forward."
SAD SIGHT: Loyalsock suffered a devastating blow in the tournament's first game when Cassaundra Soars landed awkwardly after scoring on a layup and likely suffered a season-ending injury. Soars was the heart and soul of this year's team, leading it in scoring and sparking its defense. She helped Loyalsock win a district title, a state tournament game and reach two straight district finals the past two seasons while also helping the soccer team capture a state championship and two district titles.
Soars plays as hard as any athlete I have ever watched at the high school level and is the consummate competitor. She never takes a play off and practices the same way she plays games, diving for loose balls and going all-out all the time.
If Soars does not play again it is the area's loss because she is what high school sports are all about. Do not think this is the last you have heard from her, though. The senior will play soccer at Clarion next fall and will attack her rehab the way she attacked opponents and loose balls. The best might be yet to come.
PUTBACKS: St. John Neumann gave undefeated Line Mountain, a Class A state quarterfinalist last year, a scare on its home court, trimming a big early deficit to one in the third quarter before losing, 49-34. The Knights also recorded a nice 50-44 road win at Northeast Bradford, rallying in the fourth quarter ... Bucktail freshman Maria Morgan is off to a blazing start and scored 21 points in a 37-24 win over Sullivan County at the Benton Tournament. She has helped Bucktail (4-5) win four of its last five games. ... Williamson (3-2) has a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Kim Daugherty, Cheyenne Jones and Lori Horton all are scoring in double figures.
Dr. Masse's Top Five
1. South Williamsport (6-1): The Mounties are playing as well as anyone in District 4 right now and have a chance for a memorable season if they keep improving and building off their six-game winning streak. Seniors Tierney Pfirman and Jamie Steer form quite the inside tandem, while guards like Anastasia Laird and Jen Jackson are having quality seasons. Pfirman nearly matched her career high in Friday's 69-41 win over Milton, scoring 36 points.
2. Warrior Run (7-0): The Defenders captured their tournament championship for a second straight year in impressive fashion, holding Muncy to a season-low 35 points before lambasting Milton, 73-36 in the final. Warrior Run has let just one team top 20 points and is packing a nice inside-outside punch. Steph Shamburg is one of the area's best post players, Katie Keen nearly had a double-double against Muncy and point guard Tay Parker scored 21 points against Milton. Parker also hit a series of clutch 3-pointers despite being ill in a 51-44 win over Danville.
3. Muncy (5-2): Coach Craig Weaver Jr. lost to his older brother Jon in the first round of the Warrior Run Tournament but earned a win over his dad, Craig Sr., in the consolation as Muncy stifled Montgomery and won, 44-22. Round 2 is Wednesday when Muncy travels to Montgomery. The Red Raiders upset Muncy late last season. Sophomore Jordan Jones is averaging 15 points per game and emerging as one of the area's premier guards.
4. Williamsport (3-5): In addition to stretching defenses with her strong shooting, Thomas also passed the ball well and had seven assists in the two tournament wins. When she and Littles are playing well and under control, Williamsport can be especially potent as it patiently sets up its inside game.
5. Cowanesque Valley (4-2): The Indians play defense just about as well as anyone in District 4 and have not let a team score more than 40 points. CV thumped Northern Potter, 60-21 in its last game, the fifth time an opponent was limited to fewer than 35 points. The Indians are poised to make a run at another possible NTL-West championship in a race that could again come down to it and Wellsboro.
Player of the Week
Rebecca Machmer, Canton: One of the NTL-East's more underrated players led Canton to the North Penn Christmas Tournament championship, recording consecutive double-doubles as Canton defeated Williamson and Liberty. Machmer had 14 points and 14 rebounds against Williamson before going for 17 points and 11 rebounds in the final against Liberty and imposing inside threat Brooke Scott-Knecht.
Game of the Week
South Williamsport at Loyalsock: The Lancers are young and hurting, but they still play strong defense and a Demarr Wright-led team should never be counted out.