Sullivan’s program has become synonymous with winning

As the current Sullivan County girls basketball players moved through elementary school, they knew the high school featured an excellent basketball program. They also knew that it was the boys who were doing the consistent winning.

Starting in 2011, the boys team started a stretch in which it reached seven Class A state tournaments in seven years. It also won the school’s first basketball district championship in 2012. Conversely, from 2012-15, the girls program missed four straight postseasons and never won more than nine games in a season. The Griffins had never reached states at that point, never competed in a district final and had pretty much been an afterthought throughout District 4.

But look at these girls now. The girls program has become synonymous with winning and continues raising the bar each season. The Griffins (19-7) are a three-time defending conference champion, have played in two of the last three district finals and will play in the second round of the state tournament for a second consecutive season Wednesday when they face Jenkintown.

Now both the boys and girls are sharing the spotlight.

“I know when I was little, the program wasn’t that strong. It was basically a lot of the boys doing good things. Now the girls and the boys are basically even,” forward Jessica King said following Saturday’s 65-30 state tournament-opening win against Covenant Christian. “It’s nice because you will see the community at a boys game and then at a girls game the next night. A lot of the fans come to every game. A lot of the boys were here and we like to go to their games, too. It’s nice we can support each other. It’s an equal balance of the fans, the teams supporting each other and it’s really nice.”

Sullivan won its first-ever state tournament game last year and now is seeking the deepest run in program history. The Griffins won a third straight Mid-Penn championship, dominated two straight district opponents, pushed perennial power Lourdes hard in the district final and ran through Covenant Christian like Usain Bolt at the Olympics.

“We have good younger coaches who help get the girls ready and the athleticism of the girls is impressive,” Sullivan coach Kurt Parrish said. “The other sports that they play helps them out.”

That is true with the Sullivan soccer and softball teams also having recent outstanding seasons while featuring many of the current basketball players. These are athletes who are growing accustomed to winning a lot and often playing in big games.

That showed last Saturday as the returning players from last year’s team appeared poised and calm before, during and after the game. Sullivan built an 18-4 first-quarter lead and kept extending it from there, never letting Covenant believe it had a chance. Seniors and underclassmen made big impacts as three players scored in double figures and the team combined for 22 assists.

“The experience helped me. I got all the nerves out last year and this year I was just ready to play,” sophomore Sophia Springman said after scoring 7 points, grabbing 7 rebounds and adding 5 assists. “Last year I was really nervous so that experience helped me get the nerves out.”

“This year we knew what it felt like to be in a state game,” King said after recording her 15th double-double. “We knew we just had to come out and take care of business and we did that in the first quarter. We took care of business and we ended up winning.”

The Griffins have done that a lot over the last month, taking eight of their last nine games. Sullivan has won 61 games the past three seasons and enjoyed a breakthrough 2016 campaign under former coach Shannon Pietroski that paved the way for the current state-level success. The Griffins returned all but two players from last year’s squad and bulked up their regular-season schedule to try and take the next step in 2019.

The schedule played a role in the team starting 11-6, but the losses became a positive and made Sullivan a better team. That has been especially evident throughout the postseason with the Griffins winning three playoff games by a 32-point average. They also gave Lourdes the toughest district playoff game it has endured the past three seasons in a hard-fought final.

The bonus through this current run is that the Griffins return all but two players next season. Granted, both Mykenzie Malacusky and Alexis Randall are outstanding players who have provided production and leadership, but the cupboard will be far from bare. Just as important, Parrish was able to use his entire roster in Saturday’s game, meaning all the returnees have tasted state tournament competition.

Saturday revealed how important having already competed in states can be. Combine that with players who are athletic, hungry and expect to win and the recipe is there to keep this current cycle going strong.

“Especially for the younger girls this is awesome. They get to see what it’s like to play in a state tournament game,” Springman said. “They practice just as hard as we all do and it’s good for them to get in there and get that experience. That will help us in the future.”

So, too, will having the elementary school players growing up in this era. Unlike in the past, those aspiring players who are just beginning their basketball journeys look at the high school program and only know success. It does not guarantee future excellence, but it also never hurts when those younger players grow up around a culture that features so much winning and accomplishments.

Looks like the Sullivan girls are built to last.

“I guess you could say the girls are playoff-hardened,” Parrish said. “They work hard and I’m just happy for the girls.”

So is the entire community.