The Spring-Ford girls basketball team leaves the court at halftime of their PIAA Class AAAA semifinal win over North Allegheny Tuesday night in
The Spring-Ford girls basketball team leaves the court at halftime of their PIAA Class AAAA semifinal win over North Allegheny Tuesday night in Chambersburg. The reigning PIAA champion Rams take on Cumberland Valley in a state final rematch Friday night (6 p.m.) at the Giant Center in Hershey. (John Strickler/The Mercury)

Back in November, after the Spring-Ford girls basketball team wrapped up its scrimmage at Cumberland Valley, rookie Rams coach Mickey McDaniel and his Eagles counterpart, Bill Wolf, made some small talk while they were packing up the gear.

The two programs had begun a relationship after meeting in last year's PIAA Class AAAA championship, which resulted in scheduling the scrimmage and a later non-league encounter.

"I said something to the effect of, ' Wouldn't it be something if we were both successful and were able to get back and play them again (in the state final)?'' McDaniel recalled. "He said, ' Yeah, that would great.''

Some 16 weeks later, that preseason notion has now become reality.

Spring-Ford first-year head coach Mickey McDaniel has guided the Rams to a second straight trip to the PIAA Class AAAA championship game. Spring-Ford takes
Spring-Ford first-year head coach Mickey McDaniel has guided the Rams to a second straight trip to the PIAA Class AAAA championship game. Spring-Ford takes on Cumberland Valley in a state final rematch Friday night (6 p.m.) at the Giant Center in Hershey. (John Strickler/The Mercury)

For the second straight season, Spring-Ford and Cumberland Valley will square off in the state championship Friday at Hershey's Giant Center at 6 p.m.

It will be the first Quad-A girls rematch in a title tilt since Downingtown beat Penn Hills in both 1991 and 1992.

Pioneer Athletic Conference champion and District 1 runner-up Spring-Ford (27-6), which has seemingly improved its performance level in each of its four PIAA tourney wins, punched its ticket with an impressive 47-32 semifinal victory over District 7 No. 4 seed North Allegheny in Tuesday's semifinal.

Mid-Penn Conference champion and District 3 No. 3 seed Cumberland Valley (27-5), meanwhile, advanced by turning back District 1 No. 4 seed Bayard Rustin, 61-45.


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Ironically enough, Spring-Ford's playoff charge was ignited by a 52-37 victory over Cumberland Valley in its regular season finale.

Prior to that, the Rams didn't exactly have the look of a squad that would be playing for state gold. They had lost four times in an eight-game stretch, including a 47-43 loss to Liberty Division rival Methacton that snapped a 41-game winning streak against league opponents.

"One of our goals had been to go undefeated in the PAC-10 through the regular season and playoffs,' McDaniel said. "When that goal was taken away, it could have thrown a little adversity our way.'

Instead, the Rams bounced back with a vengeance by handing the Eagles (ranked first in the state by PennLive.com at the time) their worst defeat of the season.

"Character is how you react to adversity,' McDaniel said. "We definitely showed character that night. When we won that game, I think it brought back the feeling that we could successfully compete at that high level.'

They subsequently downed Methacton 47-35 for their third straight league championship, reached the District 1 final for the third straight year before falling 63-51 to North Penn, and reeled off PIAA victories over Red Lion (41-35), Mechanicsburg (42-35), Abington (50-40) and North Allegheny.

Spring-Ford's starting senior tandem of Sammy Stipa and Shelby Mueller has engineered the journey by setting the tone with clutch play and leadership.

Stipa, a gutsy 5-foot-5 guard bound for Lafayette and four-year starter, averages a team-high 13.7 points and has scored a school career record 1,355 — 21st in area history.

But stats only tell part of the story of the impact of Stipa, a tenacious defender who has been playing at less than 100 percent due to multiple nagging injuries this year.

"There's been a number of different ways she's been described,' McDaniel said. "She's a warrior; she guts it out. To me, Sammy Stipa is just a true champion.

"You know every night, whatever she's got in the tank you are going to get, and when she leaves that floor, there's nothing left in the tank. She's come up clutch so many times, whether she scores two points or 22 points. When you need a big basket, she finds a way to get it done — whether it's a steal or finish, knocking down a mid-range jumper or hitting the open person with a pass.'

Mueller, a 5-10 forward and three-year starter, averages 12.3 points and 6.3 rebounds while displaying an uncanny knack and instinct for begin at the right place at the right time down low.

"Shelby's had an excellent career for us,' McDaniel said. "She came from a player we thought would be a contributor to one who has been a real impact player over the past few years. She can rebound, she can score inside and she works hard at her game. She's stepped it up against some real good people and been a difference-maker in the playoffs and a real leader for us.'

Junior Maggie Locke, a 6-foot forward who has also battled through injury issues, has 22 rebounds over the past two games and is averaging 8.0 points per game for the Rams.

Junior guard Julia Roshelli and sophomore guard Amy Roth round out the starting five for McDaniel, who has at his disposal a deep bench led by junior Abby Beyer, sophomore Molly Hynes and emerging freshman Maddie Haney.

Spring-Ford's bread-and-butter remains a dogged defense that has allowed an average of just 35.4 points per game. Only three teams (Christ the King, Central Bucks West and North Penn) have scored more than 50 points against the Rams.

"When you play Spring-Ford you face a team that never gives up and has an uncanny ability to find a way to win,' Wolf said. "We need to continue to play great defense without fouling and need to shoot better than the 32 percent from the field that we did back in February.'

Cumberland Valley is led by the terrific twosome of 6-foot-1 senior forward and University of Maryland-Baltimore County recruit Maddie Torresin (15.5) and 6-foot sophomore Kelly Jekot (14.0, 49 3-pointers).

After seeing a 10-game winning streak halted by Spring-Ford in the regular-season meeting and then falling 63-58 to Riverdale Baptist, the Eagles have won 9 of 10 (the lone loss being a 45-38 setback to Dover in the district semifinals they wound up avenging with a 45-36 win in the state quarters).

"They are really good shooters, and they're going to play tough, aggressive defense,' McDaniel said. "They move the ball really well on offense, setting screens and looking for the open player. They'll be patient, but if you let them open sometime and give them a good look, they're going to take it.

"We have to defend their shooters, reduce the touches for Jekot and Torresin, continue to execute on offense, and we have to defend and rebound, no question.'

There are plenty of other interesting angles and ironies about the game.

Stipa and reserve Kaity Dougherty were starters on Spring-Ford's girls soccer team, which reached the PIAA Class AAA final in November, along the way defeating previously unbeaten and top ranked Cumberland Valley (whose Jen Falconer and Taylor Sneidman started on both squads) 2-1 in the first round of states.

Last year, Spring-Ford came through the so-called "Eastern' bracket in states, with Cumberland Valley coming out of the Western bracket. This year, the roles are reversed, as Wolf pointed out.

"We were hoping to get another chance to play them again in the state tournament,' Wolf said. "What's ironic is that we both ended up in the opposite bracket we were hoping for. We were hoping to be in the West bracket as the No. 1 seed out of District 3, and they were hoping to be in the East bracket as the No. 1 seed out of District 1.'

No matter how divergent their postseason journeys have been, the Rams and Eagles are now set to cross paths again.

"They're a class team, and we're looking forward to it,' McDaniel said. "What a great thrill it is for us to be back in the state championship game. This group has just been an awesome group, all 23 of them (varsity and JV players), the coaches, managers, filmers. They've truly been like a family, and it's been a great year for us.'

A year McDaniel and Co. would like to culminate with a golden finish against a familiar foe.

"Sometimes it's surreal, but when you're at practice and look at this group of girls you know why they're having success,' McDaniel said. "They're all just staying in the moment, enjoying where we're at. Not looking ahead or looking back, but always staying right in the moment.'

 

NOTES

Wolf led Central Dauphin to the PIAA-AAAA championship in 2008. ... Cumberland Valley also won the PIAA title in 2002. ... In other Giant Center action Friday, undefeated District 12 champion Neumann-Goretti takes on District 7 champ Seton LaSalle in the girls Class AA title game at noon; District 7's Lincoln Park meets District 12 champ Math, Civics and Science in the boys Class A final at 2 p.m.; and District 12 champ Neumann-Goretti faces District 3 champ Susquehanna Township in the boys Class AAA championship at 8 p.m. ... Saturday's schedule includes the Class A girls final between District 2 champ Old Forge and District 7 champ Vincentian Academy at noon, the Class AA boys title game between District 12 champ Constitution and District 7 champ Seton LaSalle at 2 p.m., the Class AAA girls championship between District 12 champ Archbishop Wood and District 7 champ Blackhawk at 6 p.m. and the Class AAAA boys final between undefeated District 7 champ New Castle and District 12 No. 3 seed LaSalle College High at 8 p.m. ... All games will be broadcast live on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (Xfinity channel 186 in Pottstown), with Bob McCool handling the play-by-play duties and Gary Sutton providing color commentary for the boys games and Steve Degler, Steve Bohen and former Penn State great Kelly Mazzante handling the announcing duties for the girls games. The replay of the Spring-Ford/Cumberland Valley championship is slated for 12 a.m. Saturday.

Follow Darryl Grumling on Twitter at @MercSmokinD.