HERSHEY — The Neshannock High girls basketball team’s first trip to the PIAA championship game ended in silver.
The Lady Lancers, though, will return their full team with a chance to make another run next season.
“We all know that’s an amazing opportunity,” Neshannock coach Luann Grybowski said. “We got through two tough games to get there. It was just an opportunity that they had to take advantage of.
“You’re never going to have that opportunity again of playing two home games in the state playoffs. They played hard and they never gave up. I’ll take my kids over any other kids any day.”
Mount Carmel coach Lisa Varano gathered the six seniors on her team to tell them the bad news back in December.
Their state championship dreams were on hold for at least three weeks, and maybe forever.
“There were tears,” Varano said. “These seniors wanted this season. ... It was hard. We tried to keep them engaged.”
However, once the schools received the go-ahead to play in early January, the Lady Red Tornadoes became laser-focused on one goal — a state gold.
“Once the season started going, we knew this was a really special group,” senior Lauren Shedleski said. “We’ve had Hershey in our sights since our first team meeting.”
Thursday afternoon, that dream came true — with a bit of late nailbiting.
Dani Rae Renno had a double-double, and the Mount Carmel defense was outstanding in a 54-43 victory over Neshannock at the GIANT Center to claim the school’s first girls basketball state championship.
“I remember sitting on the bench as a freshman, watching those girls win a district gold medal. We all started thinking this is what all the summer workouts were for — all four years we put our heart-and-soul into this team — for this one moment,” Renno said.
Carmel finishes its historic season at 19-5. Neshannock wraps up its season at 19-3.
“It was a huge accomplishment,” Grybowski said of getting to the championship game. “I felt we overachieved. It was a fantastic run.
“To get there and be one of the top two teams in (Class) 2A is great for this program for these young kids. We played against a team that had an inside-outside game, that had two post players. I love the no quit in our kids.”
Thursday’s title didn’t come without its nervous moments, but they were few and far between for Mount Carmel.
The first came early.
Junior guard Mia Chap-man drew the defensive assignment of Neshannock point guard Neleh Nogay. Chapman made it hard for the Lady Lancers to get into their offense in the first quarter, and she had two steals in the first five minutes of the game. However, she was injured with 2:44 left in the game, and did not return.
“We knew Mia was going to have to guard their point guard; Mia is such a good defensive player,” Shedleski said. “She can really get into the other point guard’s head. Having her go down really hurt us, but the rest of the team stepped up on the defensive end.”
The Lady Red Tornadoes used Shedleski, Jenna Pizzolli and Caroline Fletcher on Nogay for the majority of the game, while Lauren Ayres did the bulk of the work on the Lady Lancers’ sophomore guard Mairan Haggerty despite giving away nearly six inches to the 5-foot-11 Haggerty.
Mount Carmel’s de- fense harassed Neshannock into 5-of-35 shooting from the 3-point line, while Ayres forced Haggerty to take 19 shots to score her team-high 12 points.
“Losing Mia was a tough blow; she is the best on-the-ball defender that we have,” Varano said. “She really rattles a lot of people. I think the other girls saw that she wasn’t coming back, and wanted to pick it up on the defensive end for them.”
The Lady Lancers devoted a lot of defensive manpower to Renno, putting a defender in front of and behind her for most of the first half. Sophomore Alyssa Reisinger came off the bench to take advantage, scoring 11 of her 13 points in the first half.
Coupled with eight points from Renno — including her shooting 4-of-4 from the free-throw line — the Lady Red Tornadoes built a six-point halftime lead despite not making a 3-pointer. The Mount Carmel players not named Renno or Reisinger shot 2-of-10 in the first 16 minutes of the game.
“I felt good at halftime,” Grybowski said. “We kept the big kid (Renno) at bay. It really gave us some confidence.
“(Neshannock’s Megan) Pallerino was in foul trouble and that didn’t help. We turned them over 18 times and I thought that was a great job.”
Mount Carmel’s outside shooters got on track to start the third quarter, specifically Shedleski. She scored eight of her nine points in the third quarter.
With Reisinger drawing attention for her first-half performance, Renno drew single coverage in the second half. She knocked down seven of her first eight field goal attempts of the second half.
Her putback early in the fourth quarter stretched the lead to 15 points at 47-32, and had the Mount Carmel faithful ecstatic in anticipation of a state championship.
That’s where the second nervous moment of the championship game came for the Lady Red Tornadoes. Mount Carmel struggled with the Lady Lancers’ amped-up pressure, turning the ball over six times in the fourth quarter. Neshannock scored eight straight points, and when Nogay knifed into the lane for a layup with about two minutes left in the game, the Lady Red Tornadoes’ 15-point lead had been whittled down to six.
“We talked a lot before the game, that (Neshannock) had made some comebacks before,” Varano said. “We talked about not counting them out, that they were going to come back. They were going fight and scrap to come back.
“We had some hiccups, but we stayed disciplined and knocked down some big foul shots.”
Reisinger was fouled on a fastbreak layup, and made the first foul shot. The second fell short, but Renno grabbed her fifth offensive rebound of the second half, and the final field goal of her illustrious career gave the Lady Red Tornadoes a nine-point lead with less than a minute to play.
Renno finished with a game-high 23 points and 11 rebounds for the Lady Red Tornadoes.