Jessell makes most of lone hoops season

Rhiallie Jessell looked unstoppable Saturday as she scored nine straight second-quarter points. The Loyalsock senior made all six shots she attempted that quarter, three from the field and three at the line. Jessell also grabbed three rebounds and added a steal as Loyalsock started routing Bloomsburg.

Just imagine if Jessell had played basketball the three previous seasons.

Loyalsock is not complaining. The Lancers simply are happy Jessell decided to play high school basketball for the first time this season. Without her, they might not be competing in the Class AAA state tournament.

Jessell continued her strong inaugural season Saturday, scoring a game and career-high 14 points as Loyalsock thumped Bloomsburg, 54-32, and clinched its second straight state playoff berth. Jessell and the Lancers (21-6) play District 3 champion Trinity in Saturday’s opening round.

“She came to me last spring an said, ‘I want to play basketball.’ I was thrilled because I know she’s an athlete,” Loyalsock Curtis Jacobson said. “I didn’t know what we were going to get basketball-skill wise, but the basketball skill growth this year has been super. She has come ready to work every single day, ready to compete, ready to get better and all the credit goes to her.”

Jessell is one of the state’s premier soccer players and will play for Division I St. Francis next fall. She also is an outstanding catcher for the softball team, helping Loyalsock reach playoffs the past two seasons. Her winters the past three seasons were spent playing soccer and/or preparing for the upcoming softball season. She wanted to play basketball as a junior but believed it would not be right to take a roster spot and not commit the time she felt necessary.

That changed when Jessell committed to play for St. Francis last fall. No longer have to focus on college recruiting Jessell could pursue basketball and help a team that reached states for the first time in six years a season ago.

“With that college recruiting done I knew it could give it my all,” Jessell said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do so I was going to try it.”

At first, Jessell looked like she would be a player who provided some depth and maybe a few quality minutes or so a game. That changed when freshman Cassie Gee tore her ACL early in the season. Jessell became one of the team’s top reserves at that point. When leading scorer Maddie Fox tore her ACL at midseason, Loyalsock appeared in real trouble.

Again, Jessell emerged. Thrust into the starting lineup, the gritty forward started flourishing. She provided strong rebounding, defense and added some old-school toughness. Against the odds, Loyalsock started rolling, winning 12 of its next 13 games and capturing the Heartland Conference championship. The Lancers then went 2-1 during districts and have their most wins in a season since 2011.

“She’s not a Division I basketball player, but she’s a Division I athlete and that goes a long way,” Jacobson said. “Her knowledge of being an athlete really helps on the basketball court. She’s a competitor. I give her a ton of credit because she didn’t have to play this year. She has a college scholarship and she didn’t have to risk that, but it wasn’t a second thought for her.”

Jessell is not one of the team’s leading scorers, but everything came together against Bloomsburg. She grabbed five rebounds and made three steals, but Jessell also came alive offensively. She hit jumpshots, scored off drives and quickly dashed any hopes Bloomsburg had of pulling the upset.

One play when Jessell did not score, however, best showcased why she is so valuable. After a teammate missed a shot, Jessell seemingly sprinted out of nowhere along the baseline and grabbed a hustling rebound. She then whipped the ball into the paint and Loyalsock eventually scored again.

“Since the beginning of the season I feel like I’ve come a long way,” Jessell said. “Coach Jacobson and Kerri (Jacobson) have been so welcoming. I’ve had a blast with them and the team.”

That feeling certainly is reciprocal.