Mount Carmel girls again setting the standard

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Mount Carmel is a perennial 20-win team and the preeiminent girls basketball force in District 4.

Mount Carmel held off repeated Loyalsock second-half comeback efforts, excelled under pressure late and captured the its eighth straight Heartland Conference Division championship, defeating the Lancers, 53-47.

Moments after winning the game and earning the HAC-III title, Mount Carmel players and coaches presented a check to Callie Cavanaugh, the Loyalsock junior high student who bravely is fighting cancer.

The sequence drove home who Mount Carmel is. The Tornadoes (18-4) have built a District 4 girls basketball dynasty, winning eight league titles and seven district championships over the past eight seasons while making the state tournament each time. But Mount Carmel is a benevolent queen. Find someone who has a negative thing to say about the program and that person likely will be the first. These are players and coaches who are as good off the court as they are on it.

Mount Carmel is not in the Sun-Gazette coverage area but I made an exception this week because there’s is quite an impressive story. And the program is so well-respected throughout the area that I don’t think anyone who follows high school girls basketball will mind.

“It’s a great program and they’ve been doing it for a long time. I have nothing but total respect for what they’ve done and what they continue to do,” Loyalsock coach Curtis Jacobson said. “It doesn’t matter who is on their team. Their coaches, the players … they are a class act and they do things the right way.”

What makes this run especially remarkable is that Mount Carmel had struggled throughout the 21st century’s first decade. Varano took over a sub-.500 team halfway through the 2010 season and it went 12-4 after that while reaching states. Mount Carmel is 200-32 since that coaching change and has become the district’s gold standard.

The names change, but the results do not. Mount Carmel has won at least 21 games in each of the last eight seasons and likely will top 20 again this year. The Tornadoes have come close to reaching the state’s Final 4 twice and rare is the season that they do not win at least one state playoff game.

“It’s exciting. It’s just a great program to be a part of,” forward Myia Miriello said after recording a double-double against Loyalsock. “We’re more like a family. We all love each other, we all support each other, we all get along. It’s just a great experience and a team to be a part of.”

“I’d definitely say being a part of this team and program is so much fun. From having my mom as a coach to enjoy it with and being on the court with girls I’ve been playing with my whole life it’s really an awesome experience,” Nicole Varano said after going over 1,600 career points. “I just love being a part of a program where everyone is like a family to me and gets along so well.”

Any program achieving what Mount Carmel has this decade is impressive. Doing it at a small to middle-sized public school is quite astounding. Mount Carmel cannot recruit players, it cannot bring in players from anywhere in the world. Its players come from Mount Carmel and Mount Carmel only.

“It’s a little humbling. We’ve been very blessed,” Lisa Varano said. “We’ve had some really solid teams that go out there and compete.”

At its core, that is what Mount Carmel’s success comes down to. Yes, they are well-coached and disciplined. Yes, they have had some excellent players and athletes. But what really has elevated Mount Carmel above the rest is a relentless competitive drive. Maybe Mount Carmel will be outplayed some nights. It will never be outworked.

This is a team that carries a collective bulls-eye on its back every year. Outstanding teams come aiming to topple it each year, but it is that insatiable desire to win that has made Mount Carmel so good and so tough. So many teams have come close to beating Mount Carmel the last few years, but the Tornadoes repeatedly find ways to win close games.

Whatever it takes, Mount Carmel finds away. Against Loyalsock that meant going 8 for 8 at the foul line in the last three minutes and grabbing 20 offensive rebounds. Mount Carmel has won its last three games against Loyalsock by 11 combined points. Its a similar story against Hughesville. It was that way against Montoursville when the Warriors started their ascent five years ago that culminated in a District 4 Class AAAA championship. Montoursville lost one regular-season game last year and that came against Mount Carmel.

“They understand what they’re supposed to do. They understand this is my responsibility and I don’t have to do more than that,” Jacobson said. “It’s a team that I enjoy coaching against because it’s a constant battle.”

Mount Carmel will endure several more battles this season, starting with the HAC Tournament Wednesday. Then there are teams like Loyalsock, Hughesville, Wellsboro and Warrior Run who all badly want to topple them and experience their own district glory come playoff time. But this is a program that thrives on embracing those challenges.

Whatever the future holds, those players and coaches have created something pretty special.

“Everyone just gets along so well and there isn’t one selfish player on the team,” Nicole Varano said. “No matter what point in the game it is, you will always find people helping each other up, encouraging one another. The bench is always into the game cheering everyone on and we just have a lot of heart.”

PUTBACKS: Muncy is playoff-bound for a second straight year after downing North Penn-Liberty and Millville on consecutive nights. The Indians (11-9) can assure themselves a Class AA first-round home playoff game with one more win. Four players scored in double figures in those games with Makenna Snyder scoring 14 points and grabbing 18 rebounds against Millville … Montgomery has been one of the area’s most improved teams over the past month and ended its season on a strong note, beating both Meadowbrook Christian and Bucktail. The Raiders won two more games than last year and Jessica Umpstead scored a career-high 19 points against Bucktail while Riley Fry had a career-high 23 against Meadowbrook. Brynna McHenry recorded double-doubles in both games … Hughesville guards Kendra Smith and Jade Cordrey combined for 31 points as Hughesville completed a season sweep of Southern Columbia, beating it on the road, 45-35. That same night Megan Zimmerman scored 23 points and Hayden Divers added 14 as Warrior Run defeated South Williamsport, 52-35. Hughesville (14-7) and Warrior Run (15-7) will meet in the District 4 Class AAA quarterfinals, probably the best first-round game in any District 4 girls tournament … St. John Neumann center Abby Henderson played her best scholastic game last Thursday, scoring a career-high 22 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and blocking seven shots in a 50-42 win at Bucktail … Canton sophomore Tamara Hess is having a big season and scored 19 points against Meadowbrook Christian. It was the seventh time in nine games, Hess scored at least 19 points … Williamson (11-10) is playoff-bound for a second straight year despite losing every starter from last year’s playoff team. Williamson capped its week with a 49-12 win over Troy as Emylee Yusko and Lilly Fitzmartin combined for 27 points. The No. 6 Warriors will play at No. 3 Loyalsock in the Class AAA quarterfinals… Galeton said its sixth annual Pink Out game, held recently vs. Northern Potter, raised more than $5,000 for the Patterson Cancer Center. The school thanked Chuck Tameris and family for his efforts and who bought and donated the shirts for both teams.

Dr. Masse’s top five in girls basketball

(Records entering Monday’s games)

1. Loyalsock (16-5): The Lancers did some mighty impressive work following the Mount Carmel game. In less than 24 hours, Loyalsock rallied from 10 down to beat Warrior Run and go on the road to beat 15-win Crestwood, 42-41 in overtime. That two-game sequence speaks volumes about who this resilient team has become. Loyalsock has played a brutal non-conference schedule in addition to competing in the HAC-III which will send at least seven teams to the postseason while losing two key players to season-ending injuries. Through it all, Loyalsock entered Monday’s game at Bloomsburg, needing a win to reach its first HAC-III Tournament. Loyalsock is receiving steady contributions from starters and reserves and Charlotte Neylon’s defense off the bench was critical to the Warrior Run win.

2. Lewisburg (18-3): Before last Tuesday, Gerald Ford was still the president the last time Lewisburg had won a league championship. That long drought ended at Central Columbia as Lewisburg won, 58-44 and captured the HAC-II championship, the program’s first league crown since 1976. Lewisburg also defeated potential playoff opponents Selinsgrove and Shikellamy in hard-fought games and clinched the top seed for the District 4 Class AAAA tournament. Megan O’Hara was outstanding in the title clincher, scoring a career-high 19 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Emily Sholly had 10 rebounds and four blocks against Selinsgrove while Bethany Rippon produced 12 points against Shikellamy. Lewisburg’s 18 wins are its most in a season since winning its first district championship in 2005.

3. Jersey Shore (15-6): Hannah Kauffman continued her super junior season last week by becoming the program’s first 1,000-point scorer since Lacy Mauro in 2007. Kauffman reached the milestone against Mifflinburg, two nights after delivering 32 points in a 64-49 win against Selinsgrove. Kauffman is only the second player in program history to reach 1,000 points before her senior year, joining program legend Alison Tagliaferri. The Bulldogs have reached 15 wins for a second straight year after having no winning seasons from 2007-2016 and 11 players scored in Saturday’s 51-29 win at Troy.

4. Wellsboro (18-2): The Green Hornets captured the NTL-I championship after thumping Williamson, 49-32. Wellsboro will try and win the overall conference title when it competes in the league tournament. The Hornets host Northeast Bradford Thursday and will advance to Saturday’s final at Mansfield University if they win that. Danville snapped Wellsboro’s six-game winning streak Saturday, defeating the Hornets, 39-33. A positive was that defensive specialist and big-time rebounder Rachael Tuttle returned from injury. Second-leading scorer Emma Poirier also could return soon and Wellsboro could become full strength at the perfect time. Point guard Tory Self made 12 steals against Williamson and Lizzie Poirier nearly recorded a double-double.

5. Sullivan County (17-2): The Griffins once again are Mid-Penn champions and have won 26 straight league games. Sullivan had never won a league championship before this season so what this program has done the last two years is especially impressive. The Griffins also will be District 4 Class A’s top seed for a second straight year and thumped St. John Neumann, 66-22 last Friday. Mykenzie Malacusky, Jessica King and Stef Kramer all average in double figures for a team that has a nice blend of size, speed and depth. Alexis Randall does a lot of quality work that does not show up in the boxscore and produced 11 steals, five assists and five blocked shots last week.

Players of the week

Amaya Walker, Cowanesque Valley and Summer McNulty, Loyalsock: Walker is one of several threats who has helped CV become one of the district’s most improved teams. She scored a career-high 23 points in a 48-41 against Canton, helping the Indians (13-6) win for the eighth time in nine games. CV is playoff-bound for the first time in six years and has had five players score in double figures this season after going 5-17 last year. McNulty has put together an excellent freshman season and seems to get better every game. The versatile guard averaged 18.7 points in three games and dazzled against Warrior Run. McNulty scored a career-high 27 points that night while adding six rebounds and going 8 for 12 from the field as well as 11 of 14 at the line.

Game of the week

HAC Tournament: The matchups are still uncertain since all the league schedules have not been completed but Thursday’s field at Shikellamy includes HAC-I champion Shamokin, HAC-II champion Lewisburg, Mount Carmel and either Loyalsock or Mifflinburg. If Loyalsock qualifies it would play Shamokin in a rematch of a game it won in overtime last week. Wednesday’s winners will play for Friday’s championship back at Shikellamy.

Masse may be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse