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Decade’s best No. 2: Montoursville girls made history in 2017

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.

The state final banners hanging in its gym provided Montoursville both a reminder and motivation.

Led by all-time Big Ten leading scorer Kelly Mazzante, Montoursville reached the Class AAA state championship in 1999 and 2000. But the Warriors had not won a district title or a state playoff game since that remarkable two-year run concluded. Montoursville endured nine straight losing seasons between 2003-11 before starting an upward climb in 2012.

The Warriors won 22 games and reached a district final in 2015, but the championship drought continued.

That is what made the 2017 Montoursville girls basketball team so significant. This group brought both league and district championships back to Montoursville for the first time in 17 years. They did so in dominant fashion, frequently overwhelming the opposition throughout the regular season, showing off their toughness in their postseason and winning that elusive District 4 Class AAAA title.

Montoursville went 25-3 and also won its first state tournament game since 2000 while carving out quite a niche in program history.

“They bought into everything I and all the coaches were saying. They worked their butts off and that’s all I can ask as a coach and they had a heck of a run,” Montoursville coach and alum Travis Heap said after Bishop McDevitt ended Montoursville’s season in the second round of states. “I told them look at where they are. When I was going through high school, the most wins our team had was three. In eight years, we’ve come a long way and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Heap became Montoursville’s coach before the 2014-15 season and his first team went 22-4 while finishing as district runner-up and reaching states for the first time in 15 years. The Warriors lost four starters from that team, but remained a contender in 2016, going 16-9. Even better, this would be a senior-laden team in 2017, featuring four senior starters and two-year starter Lauren O’Malley. The pieces were in place and Montoursville was determined to finally get over the top.

The Warriors wasted no time proving that, starting 10-0 and pummeling their first nine opponents by 24 or more points each. Montoursville finished the regular season 21-1, losing its only game to Class AAA champion Mount Carmel. The Warriors went undefeated in league play, capturing the HAC-II championship and sweeping two games from eventual 4A finalist Mifflinburg.

They also beat state-qualifying Loyalsock by 29 points and thumped 12 opponents by at least 25 points. The Warriors complemented a balanced offense with a stifling defense, allowing just 31.8 points per game beat their opponents that season by a 20-point average.

Sun-Gazette Player of the Year Lexi Marchioni averaged 14.2 points per game and drained a district-high 68 3-pointers. Lauren O’Malley was one of the district’s most versatile players and was the runner-up for Player of the Year, averaging 14.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and three steals per game. Future East Stroudsburg starter Marlene Bassett was the third Sun-Gazette and HAC-II all-star, averaging 10 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3 steals and 2.3 blocks per game. Gillian Mitchell fueled the defense, Ashlynn McQuillen averaged a steal per game and Shelby Kurtz, Rebecca Reeder and Lydia Albert all shined off the bench.

It almost seemed too easy. That was until the postseason. Montoursville was cruising in the Heartland Conference Tournament semifinals, building a 17-point lead against Shamokin. The Indians, however, dominated the second half and snapped Montoursville’s 11-game winning streak, winning 46-43 in overtime.

Entering districts, that loss could have dealt a crippling blow but it seemed to bring out the best in the Warriors. Nothing came easy in the district tournament, but Montoursville won three single-digit games and proved as tough as talented. The Warriors rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit to beat Jersey Shore, 47-40, in the semifinals after Albert’s big effort off the bench helped it hold off Shikellamy, 37-28 in the quarterfinals.

“I think we moved on well from it,” Marchioni said. “We didn’t let it tear us down. We succeeded.”

Montoursville was pushed hard again in the district final by Mifflinburg, but again surged at the most crucial time. The Warriors overcame another second-half deficit and won that long sought-after championship, 42-35. Mifflinburg led late in the game, but Montoursville closed on an 11-2 run with every player on the court providing something valuable during that stretch.

“We show our leadership on and off the court and throughout practice,” Bassett said following the game. “To be able to come together here and have control over the team when the coach can’t be heard as well in a loud gym like this shows a lot. Talent can only go so far. You have to have that confidence behind you and you have to be willing to work hard.”

Montoursville continued doing that over the next week and unloaded on York Suburban in its state tournament opener. This was a performance that would make Mazzante proud as the Warriors obliterated York Suburban, dominated all facets and won, 56-14. The Warriors landed the early knockdout, building a 34-5 halftime lead.

A week later, Bishop McDevitt ended Montoursville’s season defeating the Warriors, 46-34. Another win would have been nice, but Montoursville already had achieved things no other squad had over the past 16 seasons. They set a new standard and now future Montoursville teams are trying to emulate them.

“We did stuff we haven’t done in almost 20 years. We had last year as a building year and this year we really stood out,” O’Malley said. “It was unforgettable. A state win, a district banner … it was just a great year.”

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