Neumann girls: From Bower to states

Many first came together when they played John Bower Basketball League games as 5 and 6 year-olds. Just scoring a basket was a big deal at that formative stage.

But when the girls who someday would form the St. John Neumann girls basketball team started making those, it ignited a long journey. That ride has become more impressive each year too. Now it has become historic and the Knights are hoping it includes a few more stops.

Against the odds, Neumann is getting ready to play in the state tournament’s second round. The Knights (18-8) shocked the PIAA world last Saturday when they beat perennial power Steelton-Highspire, 51-49 in their state tournament debut. A team that resembles the childhood book “The Little Engine that Could,” keeps chugging along.

“Just thinking back to when we were in our John Bower days, I never would have thought we would be in the state tournament right now,” point guard Emily Sholder said before practice Monday. “It feels good to be an underdog and have people not expecting us to do what we did and underestimating us and then proving them wrong.”

Neumann has been making history with each postseason win and plays again Wednesday at East Pennsboro High School against Jenkintown.

And while the Knights might resemble a childhood story character, they are writing their own book. This story features a team with no player taller than 5-foot-7, coming together and doing what few outside its locker room thought possible.

Neumann entered districts as the No. 5 seed in a nine-team field before traveling nearly two hours and beating 2013 finalist Sayre. That gave the program its first district semifinal berth and the Knights then beat Mansfield 60-43 in the third-place game to reach states for a first time and become the first team that won multiple playoff games in the same season.

Saturday, the Knights added another checkmark next to historical achievements by beating the District 3 champion, a team that had captured state titles in 2011 and 2012. Still, this team remains unsatisfied. The girls have raised the bar for future teams and they would like to make it near impossible to eclipse them.

“At some point in time we’ll look back at how great a season this has been but now is not the time to look back,” Neumann coach Steve Sholder said. “Now is the time to look forward.”

That is what Neumann did last week while preparing to play a Rollers team that dwarfed it in size and that was playing close to home. Steel-High was used to playing in games like this. The Rollers expected to be moving on and making another state title run. They had nearly all the advantages on paper.

But the game is not played on paper. Neumann had its players, its coaches and its fans. That was all it needed. That was enough.

“I felt we could do it. We just had to put forth the effort to do it,” sophomore Megan Helminiak said. “It doesn’t matter what size the other team is. If you work together as a team you can accomplish anything.”

That is what Neumann did in a back and forth game that tested it in so many ways. The Knights overcame a four-point halftime deficit and then spent the second half trading big plays and big shots with Steel-High. Steve Sholder used six players and they pushed themselves to the limit, constantly diving for loose balls and making plays that take more guts than they do talent.

Helminiak hit a free throw with 1:13 remaining to put Neumann ahead 48-47 before Steel-High answered. It was another sophomore’s turn to make a huge shot next. Baylie Gerrity took a pass in the lane with 33 seconds remaining and hit a turnaround jumper, giving Neumann a 50-49 lead. Meghan Trenholm added another free throw and Neumann’s defense clinched the win by forcing some big turnovers in those final seconds.

Steve Sholder dropped to a knee while his players and fans celebrated the biggest win in program history. It was an exhilarating win that, more than any, symbolized what this team is all about.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was almost in tears. It was like the best feeling in my life,” said Emily Sholder, who had 17 points, 8 steals and 6 assists. “It felt like our whole season came together at that point. It was great.”

“We’re not as big and we’re not as nearly talented as some of the players we go against but they never back down and they never give up and it’s paying off now,” Steve Sholder said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve told them everybody we walk in against is bigger, stronger and deeper but nobody has more heart than you do. I think finally they have bought into that and realized we can beat anybody.”

That is especially true when Neumann keeps receiving such steady contributions. Trenholm scored 15 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and made six steals. Helminiak scored 13 points, Gerrity hit the game-winning shot and seniors Rachel Danneker and Stephanie Fernandez played strong defense and made repeated hustle plays.

It was the recipe Neumann has used throughout the season but never better than in its last two games. The Knights dominated an excellent Mansfield team that won 20 games to reach states and are focused on showing the rest of the state what those in District 4 have learned-these girls can play.

Many used to say that just about the Neumann boys. They usually were the ones still playing in March, the ones attracting a large and passionate fan base. They still are too, but so are the girls. Instead of watching the boys receive all the spotlight, they are basking in it too.

“Being part of a team to make it this far is pretty amazing,” Helminiak said. “It shows that even if you’re from a small school you can do anything.”

That sums up Neumann’s 2014 season pretty well. Neumann, though, wants to add an exciting finish to this story. This little engine wants to keep going and going.

“We’ve had a lot of support from students and fans (Saturday). It felt good to know people came that long distance just to see us,” Emily Sholder said. “It will be good to know that we’ll be remembered here.”