One by one, crying St. John Neumann players filed out of their locker room, the news they just received hitting them like a truck.
Neumann lost a softball coach Wednesday afternoon. The basketball players, almost all who also play softball, lost more than that. They lost a mentor, a role model and a hero.
Softball coach Ray Perchinski died of a heart attack yesterday. A man who led the program to its best-ever season in 2012 and who meant so much to so many is gone. Still, one had a feeling he was watching over the Catholic Community Center last night. Somewhere he had to be smiling and liking what he saw.
Three players scored in double figures and all six Knights that played made big contributions as Neumann played its best collective game and defeated Bucktail, 68-54. It was a fitting way to honor one of Neumann's finest.
"He was a great man and always was one of our biggest fans," an emotional Emily Sholder said. "We'll have to play the rest of the season for him."
The Knights (10-3) dealt 20 assists and answered every Bucktail second-half run while moving within a win of a record seventh straight district playoff berth. Sholder scored a team-high 21 points and dealt six assists. She was one of three different players who had at least four assists.
"I really love the way we distributed the ball," Neumann coach Steve Sholder said. "I told them after the game that was a tremendous team effort from scoring, to defensive stops, to assists."
Neumann never trailed and built a 14-point halftime lead as Baylie Gerrity and Stephanie Fernandez sparked the team. Those two combined for 13 of the team's 20 points and were the catalysts as Neumann went on a 12-0 run to turn a one-point first-quarter advantage into a 13-point lead early in the second quarter. Gerrity finished with nine points and seven rebounds while Fernandez added four assists and three steals.
Just as important, Fernandez played outstanding defense on all-state guard Maria Morgan. Fernandez had help but did a nice job denying penetration and keeping the district's leading scorer from erupting, although she did finish with 23 hard-earned points.
"The sophomores have been stepping up a lot and this game they were really stepping up," Emily Sholder said. "Stephanie had a real nice game and Megan (Helminiak) did what she always does. It's good to see us all coming together as a team and working the ball around."
Bucktail (5-6) is a young team with just one senior starter but did not buckle. The Bucks stormed back, going on a 13-0 run and pulling within 36-33 midway through the third quarter. After Neumann pushed the lead back to 11 entering the fourth quarter, they made another push to get within 50-44 but could pull no closer.
Still, it was another step forward for a team that is eyeing a district berth and that is starting to jell around Morgan. The program's all-time leading scorer was outstanding, scoring 23 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, dealing six assists and making six steals. Hannah Shearer was tough inside, scoring 12 points and grabbing while 14 rebounds while Tiffany Werts added nine points and seven rebounds.
"We were able to hang in there and they came out and played hard and got it close. There's no quit in them," Bucktail coach Carl Gentzyel said. "They're coming along well."
Helminiak matched her career-high with 16 points and was outstanding in the second half. Neumann took a timeout after Bucktail pulled within three and Helminiak settled the team, taking a pass from Fernandez and draining a long-range jumper. She scored 12 of her 16 points in the second half and showed that teams focusing on stopping Sholder and 1,000-point scorer Meghan Trenholm may pay a price.
"That was a big shot she made," Steve Sholder said. "Megan started a little slow but we just old her you have to keep shooting and that's what she did."
The play of Helminiak, Gerrity, Fernandez and Rachel Danneker also loosened up the defense and both Sholder and Trenholm took advantage. Sholder was dominant in the second half and hit 8 of her last 10 shots while also skillfully dissecting the defense. Trenholm had not picked up a basketball since injuring her back Saturday against Bloomsburg but scored 14 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, dealt seven assists, made seven steals and blocked five shots.
Trenholm and Sholder combined for eight straight points after Bucktail made its last run, pushing the Knights lead to 58-44 with 2:45 remaining. They combined to score 14 fourth-quarter points.
Challenges remain but Neumann showed last night how good it can be when everyone is clicking. Everything came together last night and the Knights played outstanding basketball.
And it was all for Perchinski.
Maria Morgan 7 6-8 23, Hannah Shearer 6 0-0 12, Tiffany Werts 4 1-2 9, Alaina Tripp 3 2-2 8, Allison Schenk 0 0-2 0, M. Farceau 1 0-0 2. Totals 21 9-14 54.
Meghan Trenholm 6 1-2 14, Emily Sholder 9 3-6 21, Megan Helminiak 8 0-0 16, Baylie Gerrity 3 3-4 9, Stephanie Fernandez 3 0-0 6, Rachel Danneker 1 0-0 2. Totals 30 7-12 68.
Bucktail11 9 19 15-54
Neumann14 20 16 18-68
3-pointers: Bucktail 3 (Morgan 3). Neumann 1 (Trenholm).
Records: Neumann 10-3. Bucktail 5-6.