CHAMBERSBURG — When Mickey McDaniel took over as the head coach of the defending PIAA Class AAAA champion Spring-Ford girls basketball team last spring, he had a simple but serious message for the Rams returners.
"I told them, ' Look, I firmly believe we can be back in Hershey,'' McDaniel said.
At that point, you couldn't have blamed rising seniors Sammy Stipa, Shelby Mueller and Kaity Dougherty for thinking that was a bit ambitious — given the fact the Rams had graduated no fewer than five key seniors.
"I knew it would be a big challenge for us to take on,' Stipa admitted.
"It's funny,' said Mueller. "At the beginning of the season people would ask us, ' Do you think you'll get back to the (state) championship?' I was a little suspect. I was like, ' I don't know.''
Over the course of four-plus memorable months, Stipa, Mueller and Dougherty helped turn that doubt and uncertainty into a cold, hard fact.
And thanks to the efforts of the final-year trio, the Rams are indeed going back to the PIAA final.
Stipa scored a team-high 14 points, Mueller scored 12 points and Dougherty contributed off the bench to a dominating defensive effort as Spring-Ford defeated North Allegheny 47-32 in a Class AAAA semifinal Tuesday night at Chambersburg High.
Maggie Locke grabbed nine rebounds for the Pioneer Athletic Conference and District 1 runner-up Rams (27-6), who face District 3 No. 3 seed Cumberland Valley (27-5) Friday at Hershey's Giant Center at 6 p.m. in the state championship. It will be a rematch of last year's 60-45 Spring-Ford victory.
"We thought to ourselves, ' We got this far, and we can't lose now,'' Mueller said. "We were so determined to win this game, so determined to get to Hershey.'
That was evident even in pregame warmups, as the normally laid-back Rams showed an abundance of fire and intensity.
It carried over once things tipped off, with Mueller opening the game with an inside basket and combining with Stipa for all the points in a first quarter that ended with Spring-Ford ahead 10-9.
With the Rams up 14-13, junior Abby Beyer nailed a 3-pointer and Stipa followed with a highlight-reel three-point play as part of an eight-point spurt that increased the lead to nine.
The dam finally burst in the second half, when Molly Hynes drained a baseline jumper and Beyer connected on three foul shots after being fouled on a 3-point bid as part of a 15-point tear that extended the lead to 40-20 on Julia Roshelli's layup off a nice feed from Mueller with 4:20 left in the fourth quarter.
Spring-Ford's hounding defense forced District 7 No. 4 seed North Allegheny (25-3) to 21-percent shooting (11-for-53) for the game.
"We did something a little different,' McDaniel said. "Most of the time we're out there trapping fullcourt, but tonight we ran the press a little softer but really put our heels on the 3 (-point line). We really wanted to be close to their shooters, because they can light it up at any time.'
Devvin LaBarge, a junior guard, did light it up at times with four 3-pointers and a game-high 16 points. But the Tigers got just five combined field goals and 16 points from their other six players.
"They were very intense and aggressive on the ball,' North Allegheny coach Sherri McConnell said. "They play very well together with their defense, but we didn't make them defend for more than 10 seconds at a time by taking some quick shots. I thought we didn't help ourselves.'
What also didn't help the Tigers — who got a game-high 12 rebounds from forward Taylor Lake — was the absence of sophomore point guard Abby Gonzales due to injury.
That said, the way the Rams looked it might not have mattered.
"I think it's definitely close to the best we've played,' Mueller said. "We did really well on defense, our offense was calm and collected, and we took good shots. It was a good effort by everyone.'
Especially the senior trifecta, which has made an indelible impact this year.
Stipa is the squad's heart and soul; Mueller is the spiritual leader; and Dougherty — like Stipa a starter on Spring-Fords's PIAA-AAA finalist girls soccer team last fall — is what McDaniel's called "the conscience' of the squad.
"We're all there for each other on and off the court every second of every day,' Dougherty said. "That's what makes our team such a good team. We just try to be positive, come out hard every day and be leaders for the underclassmen.'
"We just try to stay composed no matter what,' said Stipa. "We want to show our teammates we can get through adversity.'
And they've done just that — rebounding from a 4-4 stretch late in the regular season to win their third PAC-10 title and advance to the District 1 final for the third straight season, then bouncing back from the 63-51 loss to North Penn in the district championship to reel off four straight PIAA tourney wins to earn a return trip to Chocolatetown.
"I definitely had faith. We all did,' Stipa said.
"Deep down, this is what they wanted,' said McDaniel. "And it's a credit to our seniors. They willed us through, and the underclassmen picked up on that.
"The old saying is that you go as far as your seniors can take you. Those three are evidence of that, and they're not going to be satisfied just to get there. They're going to want to win that championship game.'
North Allegheny enjoyed a 30-23 rebounding advantage, including eight boards from 6-foot-2 forward Meg Morningstar. ... Spring-Ford's defense forced 18 turnovers, with the Rams committing 15. ... Locke had five points and four steals, while Beyer had six points as eight different Rams scored and six more saw action. ... In the other semifinal, Maddie Torresin scored 19 of her 21 points in the second half as Cumberland Valley topped Bayard Rustin 61-45.
Follow Darryl Grumling on Twitter at @MercSmokinD.