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Mercersburg girls cap off record year with state berth

When Katie LaRue stepped on the Mercersburg Academy campus five years ago, the girls basketball team couldn't buy a win.

With a 5-17 record, the team more resembled a group of multi-sport athletes hoping to keep busy during the winter months.

Now flash forward five years with LaRue at the helm of one of Mercersburg's best seasons since the 1980s, with a chance to claim its first Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association state title.

But that would not be the only "first" for this team in 2016.

Earlier this month the Blue Storm captured their first Independent-Parochial School League title in program history, and appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Prep League championship game for the first time. Despite taking second in the league after a tough loss to six-time MAPL champion Blair, Mercersburg bounced back in the PAISAA tournament to make its first-ever trip to the semifinals.

The sixth-seeded Blue Storm will take on No. 7 Abington Friends at 8 p.m. Friday in a state semifinal held at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia.

Abington Friends (19–6) does not offer much on film, so LaRue will enter the gym slightly blind on what to expect, but based off past experience in the PAISAA, she expects a highly-skilled offense that operates at a slower pace.

"I think the reason we have trouble in the state tournament is because those schools really slow things down," LaRue said. "So that has been a focus - how do we get them to play our game and not fall into playing their game? We will have to find a way to force them to run with us; we are a fast-breaking team."

Marking LaRue's five-year anniversary as head coach, the team has flipped its record from just five wins, to not even five losses, heading into the final tournament of the season with a 17-4 record.

"We have focused on improving the program, and I've made a push to bring in kids who identify as basketball players," LaRue said. "My first few years we had a lot of really good athletes, but most of them did not identify as basketball players. They were lacrosse players, soccer players, but did not also identify as basketball players."

Since, LaRue has brought in talented players with hopes of continue playing basketball in their collegiate career, including current senior point guard Molly Taylor, who has committed to play Division I at the University of Loyola, Md.

"I think the closeness of our team has to do a lot with how far we've come," Taylor said. "When we came we would be lucky to win a game, and now its a completely different atmosphere. This season everyone is here with the same focus and the same goals and I think that's what makes it so special."

"Since it's my first year here, to have the opportunity to be on a team like this, it's just a really big honor for me," said Tori Yoder, a post-graduate from Shalom Christian. "As a team we are all really close, and it's cool to be able to take a group of people that we love and do what we love together. When you have chemistry off the court it's a lot easier to have chemistry on the court."

The Blue Storm starts every game led by a group of the players in their final year at Mercersburg with even more motivation to bring the PAISAA trophy home.

Taylor, Yoder, Joana Santos and Sarah Lyman (Shippensburg) will leave their blue jerseys behind after this year, making the postseason all the more memorable. Junior Isiuwa Oghagbon rounds out Mercersburg's starting five.

LaRue said, "To be successful you really need five to eight kids who can really get out there and play, and one of our assets right now is that I have five kids on the floor at any one time can go out there and be our leading scorer, and a lot of schools don't have that."

Four of Mercersburg's five starters average in double figures, with Taylor leading the way with more than 16 points per game. Lyman, Oghahbon and Yoder all average just over 10 points per game.

But despite the outcome in the PAISAA tournament, the team is just happy to still be competing.

Tuesday, Mercersburg's spring sports began practice, and while athletes were running around campus with spring gear on, the girls team walked into the gym with pride to still be in season.

"I couldn't have asked for a better senior season," Lyman said. "It's been amazing to finish this way. Even if we don't win the state tournament we have had an amazing season, and getting to play as many basketball games as we can before we're done is a blessing."

"And to do it into the postseason," Taylor added. "Every other team right now is practicing for spring and we're not done yet. It gets us hyped to keep going."

LaRue brought a host of new traditions to the program that improved the team's mentality on the court, including meditation and a new mistake response mentality.

But while playing success is a great accomplishment, LaRue said the lasting impact she hopes to make on the girls is the ultimate goal.

LaRue said, "They know I don't just show up and coach them and leave, I show up every day and care about them. I don't need them to just play basketball for me, I need them to be good citizens of the community. If I can teach them to become better people, then I've done my job.

"It's great that we are having so much success right now, but I think my goal ultimately is to make them better people in the long run."