District 4 girls basketball playoff preview

An area team has not captured a District 4 championship since Loyalsock hoisted the Class AA trophy four years ago. This season, however, presents the area with its best chance in the last four seasons to end that drought. Unlike the last few years, there are no clear-cut favorites it any field so a fun level of unpredictability exists in 2014.

Class AAA

(6 teams, 2 reach states)

No. 6 Jersey Shore is the only area team in this field and is in the playoffs in a non-open format for the first time since 2007. The Bulldogs (11-10) started strong but are staggering into the postseason, having lost seven of their last nine games. Jersey Shore opened the season 9-3 and features good height inside along with a ferocious defense. The Bulldogs allow just 34 points per game and twice held teams to fewer than 20 points.

Jersey Shore travels to No. 3 Mifflinburg for its quarterfinal. The Wildcats (17-5) swept the regular-season series. Mifflinburg is one of the field’s most improved teams and has a nice one-two combination with Kayla Kline and Julie McArdle-Coe.

Defending champion Athens (19-5) is the No. 2 seed and will meet the Jersey Shore/Mifflinburg winner in the semifinals. Athens plays defense as well as anyone and romped to the NTL championship, stifling strong Mansfield and Wyalusing in the league’s inaugural tournament.

Top-seeded Danville (20-3) is seeking its second championship in three seasons. The Ironmen have reached three straight finals and have arguably the field’s best player in sophomore center Amber Renz who averages more than 20 points per game. No. 4 Shikellamy plays No. 5 Shamokin and the winner gets Danville. Both teams have wins over the Ironmen and have played well late.

Tournament sleeper-Shamokin: The Indians rallied from a slow start and have won six straight while downing Danville two weeks ago.

Player to watch-Paige Packer, Jersey Shore: The senior point guard is one of the district’s best defenders and makes Jersey Shore go. She is an excellent passer and rebounder as well.

Projected Semifinals: Danville over Shamokin; Mifflinburg over Athens

Projected Final: Danville over Mifflinburg

Class AA

(8 teams, 3 advance)

Top-seeded Mount Carmel (19-4) is seeking its fourth straight district championship after capturing its fifth straight HAC-II title. The Tornadoes entered last night’s HAC championship against Warrior Run seeking their fourth straight 20-win season. Senior point guard Ali Varano is an elite defender and a 1,000-point scorer who does lot of damage by forcing turnovers. The Tornadoes’ swarming defense sparks its offense and Mount Carmel held Muncy to a season-low in a 39-31 HAC semifinal win.

No. 8 South Williamsport (11-10) travels to Mount Carmel in the quarterfinals and enters as one of the field’s hottest teams. The Mounties have made a stunning turnaround after starting 3-8 and finished third in the competitive HAC-III. South has just two starters back from last year but excelled down the stretch and beat three teams, including No. 3 Muncy, that beat it earlier in the season. The Mounties also are resilient, rallying several times to win in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Anna Steer has come on strong while players like Kelsey Gantz and Roxie Keller elevated their performances down the stretch.

No. 5 Montoursville (14-8) has been one of the field’s most unpredictable teams. It is the only HAC-II team that has beaten Mount Carmel, sweeping two games from the Tornadoes and routed five-time District 4 Class A champion Lourdes 64-30 on the road last Wednesday. The Warriors also lost by 13 last week, though, and have been up and down at times. When they are clicking they are tough to beat. Point guard Kirsten O’Malley is one of the district’s premier players, averaging 16.9 points per game while Kelsey Stine is tough inside and Lexi Marchioni and Marissa Hall are quality guards.

Montoursville travels to No. 4 Wyalusing (17-6). The Rams reached the 2012 championship and have won at least 17 games in each of the last three seasons. The Rams have some good size and speed.

No. 2 Warrior Run (19-4) is having its best season of the 21st century and is seeking its first semifinal appearance during that time. The Defenders were playing in last night’s HAC championship, revealing how good they are. They rallied past HAC-I champion Danville in a 42-34 semifinal win and play defense as well as any district team. All-time leading scorer Steph Shamburg can do it all and Abby Fisher has been outstanding late in the season while freshmen Madi Welliver and Emily Webb make the present and future look bright.

Warrior Run hosts league rival Southern Columbia in the quarterfinals. The No. 7 Tigers (12-10) struggled down the stretch but remain dangerous after reaching last year’s final. Mackenize Clarke is an excellent point guard and the hard-working Tigers have recorded some big road wins, including at Class AAAA Williamsport.

No. 3 Muncy (18-5) hosts No. 6 Central Columbia and is hoping to reach states for a fourth straight season. Jordan Jones is an outstanding four-year starting point guard who usually plays her best in the biggest games and scored her 1,000th career point early this season. She was outstanding in last year’s postseason and fellow guard Brianna McLaughlin combines with Jones to form one of the field’s best backcourts. If sophomore Nikki Scott plays tough inside, Muncy can be especially tough to beat. Watch out for Crystal Good too. The senior forward plays big and almost always is a factor.

Tournament sleeper-Central Columbia: The Blue Jays (13-9) swept Montoursville, winning on the road 50-37 last week. Lindsey Carl is an explosive scorer and the Blue Jays have some good balance while having beaten Warrior Run on the road.

Player to watch-Jen Jackson, South Williamsport: The senior forward has been one of the district’s best players down the stretch and is a huge reason South has been so successful. She is a consistent double-double threat and scored 18 or more points in six straight must-win games for the Mounties.

Projected Semifinals: Mount Carmel over Montoursville; Central over Warrior Run

Projected Final: Mount Carmel over Central; Third-place game: Montoursville over Warrior Run

Class A

(8 teams, 3 advance)

Undefeated Millville (22-0) enters as the tournament favorite but is a victim of a flawed District 4 seeding system and faces one of the toughest quarterfinal opponents. The Quakers meet five-time defending champion Lourdes (11-11) which is better than its record indicates, playing one of the district’s most demanding schedules.

Millville center Madi Bower is an all-state candidate, scoring 54 points against Montgomery and 46 points against Bucktail. She topped 20 points and 20 rebounds in two wins over Muncy too. Her sister Maci is another big scorer and is outstanding in transition.

No. 5 St. John Neumann (15-7) and No. 4 Sayre (15-7) will face the winner of that quarterfinal in the semifinals. The Redskins lost four starters from last year’s district finalist but beat Neumann in the quarterfinals a year ago and feature an outstanding defense.

Neumann has won more games in a season since 2008 and has two 1,000-point scorers in guards Meghan Trenholm and Emily Sholder. Sophomores Megan Helminiak and Baylie Gerrity have had breakout years and Millville is the only Class A team that has beaten Neumann. Stephanie Fernandez is a defensive stopper and Rachel Danneker is solid off the bench. The Knights are hoping to reach the semifinals for the first time in the 21st century.

Despite losing three quality starters and more than 60 percent of its scoring and rebounding from last year, No. 2 Mansfield (19-4) has made a six-win improvement and has its highest seed since 2007. Ali Hillson, Kaitlyn Garverick and Alysa Davey-Bostic have had big seasons and Simone Lichty has been solid on both ends. Northeast Bradford is the only Class A team that has beaten Mansfield which won 14 of its final 15 regular-season games.

East Juniata (13-8) makes the long journey north to play the Tigers. East Juniata played well down the stretch and is hoping to pull a first-round upset the way it did five years ago when it won as a No. 12 seed.

No. 6 Bucktail (14-8) has just one senior starter but is in the playoffs for the second time in three years. The Bucks, who travel to Northeast Bradford, won eight straight games after starting 5-7 and have the field’s best player in all-state point guard Maria Morgan. The junior averages 27.9 points per game and close to 10 assists while leading the team in steals. Tiffany Werts and Hannah Shearer are tough inside and Cheyenne Casper has shined late in the season, scoring a career-high 17 points in Friday’s 61-33 win at Galeton that knocked the Tigers out of the playoffs.

No. 2 Northeast Bradford (19-5) captured the NTL-II championship and defeated Wyalusing in the NTL tournament semifinals. The Panthers play outstanding defense but also can go up-tempo and score a lot of points. They have a good nucleus back from last year’s state qualifier.

Tournament Sleeper-St. John Neumann: The Knights have a chance to really make a big impact on program history and have played a solid schedule that has prepared them well for the postseason. Gerrity and Helminiak’s development has been key and the Knights are more well-rounded than in the last few years.

Player to watch-Kaitlyn Garverick, Mansfield: After having a breakout season at North Penn last year, Garverick has become one of Mansfield’s most valuable players. The forward has routinely recorded double-doubles and leads the team in rebounding while averaging 12.8 points per game. She had a career-high 18 rebounds last week against Cowanesque Valley.

Projected Semifinals: Millville over Sayre; Northeast Bradford over Mansfield

Projected Final: Northeast Bradford over Millville; Third-place game: Mansfield over Sayre

Dr. Masse’s Top Five: 1. Warrior Run; 2. Mansfield; 3. Muncy; 4. Montoursville; 5. St. John Neumann

Player of the Week-Mariah Berguson, North Penn: The junior guard helped make the last girls game in school history a memorable one. She scored 26 points Friday as the Panthers beat Liberty, 83-52. Berguson will play at Mansfield next year, giving the Tigers yet another weapon.