For more than a decade, the District 3 Class AAAA boys' basketball tournament has been headlined by four inner-city programs. Rarely is a championship decided without William Penn, J.P. McCaskey, Harrisburg or Reading.
The same game in girls' basketball is a different story. Those four inner-city programs have not advanced past the first round of the District 3 tournament in four years.
That lack of playoff success is unheard of from the four boys' programs.
During the last 10 years, those boys have combined for 11 appearances in the championship game and eight titles. In fact, the only District 3 Class AAAA boys' basketball championship game played without one of those four schools during the last 21 years came in 1997 when Chambersburg and Cedar Cliff reached the final.
Meanwhile, girls' basketball teams from those four city programs — William Penn, McCaskey, Harrisburg and Reading — have made just three finals appearances in the last decade (2006-2015). The only two title runs came from Harrisburg in 2007 and McCaskey in 2006.
Of late, it is not a question of coming up short. Some of the girls' inner-city programs have struggled just to reach the District 3 tournament. Not counting play-in games, none of the four inner-city programs have advanced beyond the first round since Harrisburg reached the quarterfinals in 2010-11. William Penn has not qualified for the District 3 tournament since 2004-05.
Why is there such a disparity between girls' and boys' basketball at the four programs?
STABILITY >> One key difference in the boys' and girls' programs at inner-city schools in District 3 is coaching stability.
The boys' programs have established coaches. Two have been in place for decades, while William Penn's Troy Sowers is approaching his 10th season. The girls' programs cannot match that stability.
Most schools would envy the type of longevity the boys' programs have experienced in the last decade. Steve "Bird" Powell (McCaskey), who continues to coach after a cancer scare, and Kirk Smallwood (Harrisburg) have headed their respective programs for more than 20 seasons. Troy Sowers (William Penn) crossed the 200-victory plateau at William Penn this season, his ninth with the Bearcats. Even young Reading coach Rick Perez, who just finished his fourth season, had spent almost a decade as an assistant at there before being hired as the head man in 2011.
SUBURBAN DOMINATION >> The big-school girls' bracket has been dominated by suburban schools in recent years. Wilson (three titles in last 10 years), Central Dauphin (two titles in last 10 years) and Cumberland Valley (state and district titles in last two years) have all experienced success. The best big-school team out of York County has been Red Lion.
It has appeared in four district championship games since 2003. Coach Don Dimoff said two things are necessary for postseason success: versatility and numbers. That's something that has been helped by a youth program at Red Lion that stretches down to third grade.
"When it comes to districts and states, it's all about matchups; how do you match up against other teams?" Dimoff said. Red Lion's district title teams in 2011 and 2012 "didn't have a whole bunch of size, but we were balanced and we were able to play a bunch of different ways, giving teams several different looks. We could play half-court and full-court defense."
NUMBERS >> For William Penn, a girls' program that has not reached the district championship since losing to Carlisle in 1987, filling a roster has been a struggle. The Bearcats need more players.
William Penn girls' basketball coach Larry Corbin said he didn't experience this problem during his years as a student in basketball-rich York Catholic.
"We ate, slept and breathed basketball," Corbin said of his own youth.
He wants to instill that type of desire with the Bearcats.
Yet only 14 students tried out for the William Penn girls' team this season. He needs to teach basics and fundamentals before devoting time to more complex schemes, such as how to adjust to a certain defensive look.
"Girls are worried about what people are going to say about you," William Penn junior Nakoya Beady said about her own struggles in trying to convince other students to try out. "Like my dad told me, girls are as good as guys, you can do anything you want ... support your team, support your school."
It's not always an easy sell.
Corbin said William Penn and other inner-city schools have issues that suburban schools don't necessarily have to deal with.
"You have more broken houses ... and one-parent families that have to work one or two jobs and don't get to make sure their kids are at every practice," Corbin said. "It's tough. And you'll see that in every city, Reading, Harrisburg and Lancaster. ... I've talked to some of those coaches, and they're dealing with the same issues we are dealing with."
Some potential players need to babysit their younger siblings after school, others opt to get jobs, Corbin and Beady said.
There's some sign of change. The Bearcats have increased their win total in each of the last three seasons, going from four wins in 2013 to seven wins in 2015 — this despite moving up in competition from YAIAA Division III to Division I. William Penn athletic director Joe Chiodi pointed out he believes the William Penn girls' basketball program could have seen an even bigger improvement this season if it had not lost two 6-foot players to transfers outside the district. All schools encounter these type of departures, Chiodi said, but it's more difficult for William Penn to overcome them because the Bearcats don't have the numbers to fill in for the loss of players.
CONSISTENT YOUTH PROGRAM >> It hasn't always been this way. In the 1980s, William Penn was one of the YAIAA's best girls' programs, winning four league tournaments and reaching the finals five times from 1984 through 1989.
The Bearcats won a District 3 title and advanced to the state semifinals. They produced great players during the stretch, including eventual WNBA player Chantel Tremitiere and 2,000-point scorer and NCAA Division I player Barb DeShields, but the Bearcats haven't been back to the league final since winning it in 1989.
During the 1990s, Charlie Sexton attempted to build up William Penn's youth program.
He recalled a first-time player coming out for the team as a freshman and transforming herself into a quality player by her senior year.
"You wouldn't have believed the difference," Sexton said.
His one regret is not having a chance to pull her onto a team in junior high or earlier. If she could improve her footwork as a high school student, just think of the strides she could have made as a younger player, Sexton argued.
William Penn did not have enough players to form a seventh- and eighth-grade team this season.
TALENT >> One misconception about William Penn's struggles is talent. The program has talent, it just struggles to always surround it with quality role players.
Junior Chyna Steele crossed the 1,000-point barrier this season, and she averaged 20.3 points per game — the second-highest total in the league — against YAIAA Division I competition. In fact, she has ranked in the top five for scoring in the league during the last three years.
Steele has not been the only recent Bearcats standout player. College junior Aigneè Freeland has amassed a 1,000-point career at Division II Edinboro University.
"There's an example of a really talented player, but no one knew about her because she didn't have a strong team behind her," Chiodi said.
Freeland said she began playing basketball in seventh grade. An AAU player from her freshman through junior seasons at William Penn, she said William Penn coach Blaine Claiborne told her "in all four years of high school" she could go far in the sport. "I didn't start paying it any mind until my junior year," she added.
But she never lost interest in the sport, never felt the urge to leave the team despite its lack of victories.
"It was an issue keeping girls involved and staying committed," Freeland said in a January phone interview.
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AN IMPORTANT PROGRAM >> Despite the lack of playoff wins for inner-city girls' programs, William Penn players — past and present — agree the basketball program is a positive influence.
Basketball "kept me out of trouble," Freeland said. "Going to a city school, it kept me on the right track because I had something to focus on instead of running around and following whatever else was happening."
Beady added: "Sometimes this is the only thing some kids have to keep us away from the harm in the city."
Contact Jim Seip at 771-2025.