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Decade’s best No. 1: Loyalsock’s 2019 squad had tremendous balance against stacked schedule

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a ‘Best of the Decade’ series looking back at the top 10 football, girls and boys basketball, softball and baseball teams, coaches, games and players of the last decade.

Four Loyalsock senior starters first came together as third graders when they started playing basketball. Maddie Fox, Juliana Cruz, Sarah Van Fleet and Sam Stopper bonded over the years, experienced ups and downs, but always pulled closer together. All that growth, all that chemistry, all that talent and all that work over the years culminated in 2019 when Loyalsock put together one of the best years in program history.

A game between 2019 Loyalsock and 2017 Montoursville — the No. 2 best area girls basketball team of the decade — would be an awesome one, but this reporter gives Loyalsock the slight edge because of its tremendous balance and defense and because it won 24 games while playing one of the state’s more demanding schedules.

This senior-laden team went 24-4, romping to both HAC-III and District 4 Class AAA championships. Imhotep, a team featuring multiple Division I recruits, won a hard-fought second-round state playoff game to end the season, but along the way Loyalsock won 10 games against state-qualifying teams. Those included Class AAAA state semifinalist Mifflinburg, Class AA champion Mount Carmel (twice) and Class AAA second-round qualifier Penns Valley.

Its only two regular-season losses were close ones against Class AAA state finalist Dunmore and Clas AAAA second-round state qualifier Lake-Lehman. Five of the six teams in the HAC-III had winning records and four reached states. Almost every opponent Loyalsock played was a good one and it still won its games by an 18-point average.

Talk about a strong closing act.

“It hasn’t just been high school,” senior guard Juliana Cruz said that season. “I’ve been playing with these girls since third grade, so it’s been a long time in the making and we put it together the last few years and it’s really been fun getting to play with these girls and building the program up the way we did.”

The four senior starters all were either four or three-year starters and won 74 games during their scholastic careers. The only underclassman in the lineup was sophomore Summer McNulty, an outstanding player who earned first team HAC-III and Sun-Gazette all-star honors for a second straight year. The bench was strong well with sophomore Cassie Gee recovering from a torn ACL and becoming one of the district’s most feared shooters and averaging 13.7 points throughout districts. Anna Burdett and Sophia Gardner provided strong defense off the bench and Loyalsock allowed just 38.4 points per game.

Fox missed half her junior season, but still scored her 1,000th career point that season and put together and all-state worthy campaign, averaging 13.5 points, 2.9 steals and hitting 66 3-pointers. The thing was, defenses had to pick their poison against Loyalsock. They could not gang up on Fox or McNulty because Stopper, Cruz, Van Fleet were dangerous as well. If teams played zone defense, Fox and Gee could rain 3-pointers all night. If they played man-to-man, the guards were fast enough and the team unselfish enough that they could pick it apart inside and outside.

“All the time, you hear about these teams that might have a girl scoring 30 points, but they’re still losing.” McNulty said. “I feel like the reason we’re so strong and such a good team is because anyone on the floor can put up 4-12 points a game.”

That was the case a year earlier as well when Loyalsock fought through the adversity of losing Fox and Gee to injuries and went 22-7 while capturing the Heartland Conference championship and defeating perennial state power Trinity in the opening round of states.

With four starters back and both Fox and Gee returning, there was a lot of hype surrounding Loyalsock entering the 2019 season. The Lancers then exceeded it.

Loyalsock started 7-0, opening their season with a dramatic overtime, comeback win at Mifflinburg. Lake-Lehman defeated the Lancers, 56-51, but they rebounded and won 12 straight before Dunmore turned a four-point fourth-quarter contest into a 53-40 win. Loyalsock went undefeated in the rugged HAC-III, sweeping two games from three-time defending district champion Mount Carmel by 53 combined points and winning nine of its league games by double-digit margins.

It also helped that the defense was as stifling as the offense was balanced. Coach Curtis Jacobson changed defenses during games like a chameleon and his players brilliantly executed them. Van Fleet earned Sun-Gazette Defensive Player of the Year honors, Cruz was one of the district’s best on the ball defenders and Stopper, Fox and McNulty also swarmed.

Mifflinburg rallied late to beat Loyalsock, 57-54 in the HAC Tournament semifinals, but that loss seemed to reinvigorate the team which romped through districts and won three games by 90 combined points.

Everything clicked in those three games and especially in the district final when Loyalsock had five players scored at least eight points. The starters watched most of the fourth quarter from the bench after dealing 18 assists in three quarters and Loyalsock won that elusive district championship, 58-31.

“It’s really surreal. We’ve worked for three years in and out of the season and the last two years we came so close to tasting this, so it’s incredible to be here right now with these girls and these coaches,” Van Fleet said afterward. “It’s exciting to be here with them and sharing this with them.”

The Lancers shared more good times a week later when they played one of their best games of the season and defeated District 2 power Holy Redeemer, 57-41. Loyalsock dominated the second half, Van Fleet held 1,000-point scoring center Samantha Yencho to five points and all the progress this group had made through the years revealed itself yet again at the perfect time.

“I came in three years ago and I got a bunch of really good athletes and the credit goes to them because they became basketball players,” Jacobson said following the district final. “Being an athlete helps a lot, but the execution that they are showing now wouldn’t have happened two years ago. The credit goes first to the senior class and then to everyone buying into what the senior class has done. They’ve shown them the ropes and that is going to pay dividends over the next few years as well.”

Loyalsock battled Imhotep hard in the next round and had its chances. The Lancers, though, experienced a rare cold shooting night and the Panthers pulled away in the closing minutes, winning, 49-38.

And while the journey was over for the seniors, what a ride it was. What an example they set, too, because a year later a team with four new starters again won 24 games and reached the state tournament’s second round.

That is what makes the 2019 team’s championship so meaningful.

“When I come back and look at the banner I’ll know it’s because of all the hard work we put in,” Cruz said after the Imhotep game. “We made memories so when I look back at that banner I’m going to remember how hard we worked at practice and all the time we spent watching film and working on team bonding. There’s so much that goes into it and people don’t realize it and it’s really great that I got to make all these memories and be on such a successful tam with all the girls.”

“They never stopped working,” Jacobson said. “And they put us back on the map.”

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