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Griffins lack numbers, not toughness

Sullivan County does not feature a JV girls basketball program. The varsity roster includes only nine players, just one being a senior.

The Griffins do not have many numbers and they do not possess ample experience. All they have are each other. Combine that with a ferocious work ethic and strong-willed belief and that is enough.

Sullivan County (19-4) is headed back to the District 4 Class A semifinals and the state tournament for a fourth straight year. The Griffins have overcome the odds throughout the season and vanquished a former nemesis to achieve these latest milestones, defeating three-time defending champion Lourdes, 53-44 in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.

“It goes back to the whole small roster. We have always been small so we always have to work 10 times harder to get there,” forward Samantha Albright said after scoring 11 points and grabbing eight rebounds. “When you’re down you have to work 10 times harder to get back up.”

The Griffins have been up over the last five years, winning at least 14 games each time. Beating Lourdes gave Sullivan County its fourth straight season with at least 19 victories and it will try reaching a third final in four years this weekend when it faces rival Millville in the semifinals.

Still, it seemed like Sullivan County might be knocked down entering this season. The Griffins already had to replace two strong starters, including all-state guard Mykenzie Malacusky. Then a returning starter and two projected starters were lost right before the season started, leaving center Jessica King and guard Sophia Springman as the only players remaining with significant varsity experience.

But the Griffins never flinched. They captured a share of a fourth straight Mid-Penn championship, won the Selinsgrove Christmas Tournament with victories against Class AAAA Mifflinburg and Class 5A Selinsgrove, and have won 12 of their last 13 games.

“We have great leaders,” Sullivan County coach Kurt Parrish said. “Jess and Sophia, you couldn’t ask for two better team leaders and everyone has come a long way since the tip-off tournament.”

“At the beginning we were a little nervous but as the season went on we started believing. We had to, we had no other option,” Springman said after a valiant performance Tuesday in which she played through sickness and made a run at a double-double. “It feels good to show everyone in the community what Sullivan County is all about.”

What Sullivan County is all about came shining through against Lourdes. The Red Raiders had won seven straight against Sullivan County, including 41-40 last December and in three straight playoff meetings. This time, the Griffins opened a seven-point second-quarter lead before Lourdes scored six points and less than a minute. Sullivan County stayed composed, regrouped and closed the half on a 9-0 run, building a 21-11 halftime lead.

That was the start of a recurring theme. Lourdes kept battling back and Sullivan County kept slamming the door on its comeback hopes. The Raiders cut a 13-point third-quarter deficit to four midway through the third before the Griffins went up 12 entering the fourth. When Lourdes hit a series of late-game shots, the Griffins almost always answered with baskets of their own and King (21 points, 14 rebounds) helped put the game away when she converted a late 3-point play.

King has topped both 1,000 career points and rebounds. Springman averages 14 points per game and they have formed a strong duo. But for the Griffins to have the success they have earned, it has had to be all the players elevating their performances. They have all done that, driving the point home against Lourdes.

The team’s two freshmen, Cassidy Skoranski and Stella Harney each hit critical 3-pointers which stymied Lourdes rallies. Albright played one of her best high school games and every player Parrish used contributed something positive, including swarming defense as Sullivan County vanquished the perennial power.

“Everyone played outstanding,” Albright said. “They (the young players) were thrown into a tough situation and they have really stepped it up and really have improved.”

“We told them this is the reason we go to Selinsgrove and play against the bigger schools in tournaments. (Tuesday) afternoon we said to them that if you can beat a school like Selinsgrove and Mifflinburg you can beat Lourdes,” Parrish said. “Everybody contributed. That was the main thing. We emphasized it has to be everyone and it was.”

That is Sullivan County. It is nine players trusting and believing in each other. It is nine players enjoying this experience, this ride and these moments. And it is a team which still has some unfinished business.

Sullivan County has made a lot of program history over the last four years but it is still searching for its first district championship. Like the fictional small-town Hickory Huskers from the movie “Hoosiers,” this team keeps working toward clearing that final hurdle.

“At the beginning of the season Coach asked what our goals were and each one of us said we want to win a district title,” Springman said. “We want to work and we have to work if we want to achieve that goal.”

This team might be small in numbers but it is big on heart.

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