Delone Catholic and Dunmore took two very different postseason paths to their state championship match-up.
The Squirettes and Lady Bucks will square off for the PIAA Class 3-A title at 6 p.m. Thursday at Hershey's Giant Center.
Delone, the York-Adams League Division III champion, suffered a pair of disappointing playoff losses in the first round of the Y-A playoffs (to Gettysburg) and in the District 3 final.
To say that Delone coach Gerry Eckenrode believed his team would be in the state final after falling to Trinity in the 3-A district final would be incorrect.
“This was totally unexpected,” Eckenrode said moments after his team punched its ticket to the state final with a 47-39 triumph over Central Cambria Monday evening. “Just like our first state championship. I didn’t expect to be there for that first one.
The veteran coach led Delone to three-straight state titles from 2003-2005.
During a thrilling run to the 2019 state final, the Squirettes (25-4) have taken their game up a notch. That was never more apparent than in crunch time during the fourth quarters of their past three hotly-contested victories.
Unbeaten Dunmore, on the other hand, has been dominant throughout the season. Led by a standout freshman in Moriah Murray and a dominant post player in Victoria Toomey, no team has come within six points of the District 2 champion.
To say that the Dunmore girls are surprised to be here would be a major understatement.
“They’ve been expecting this for the past four years,” Eckenrode said. “Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t get past (Neumann) Goretti.”
Dunmore finally hurdled the Neumann-Goretti obstacle this season. The Lady Bucks dethroned the four-time defending state champs from District 12 in the quarterfinals (54-47), and followed that up with an impressive 50-24 triumph over Trinity in the semifinals.
In contrast to the Delone girls, the Dunmore girls (29-0) have tended to put away their state foes in the first quarter, much like they did in a 17-3 opening surge vs. Trinity on Monday.
The keys: For Eckenrode, the greatest factor determining success or failure comes down to one basic element — shooting.
The last time Delone played at the Giant Center (a 44-33 loss to Trinity in the District 3 3-A final), it was not a night to remember. Brooke Lawyer, the team’s leading scorer at 12.8 points per game and a player that Eckenrode called the best shooter that he’s ever coached, was held scoreless. Bradi Zumbrum, the Y-A Division III Player of the Year who averages 11.7 points per contest, was limited to four points. Combined, the two DC standouts were held more than 20 points below their combined average.
“For us to win, we have to shoot a decent percentage,” he said. “We have to shoot the ball better than the last time we played there (at the Giant Center). We can’t go up there and shoot 20 percent and expect to win. We have to get up in the 40s somewhere.”
Finding ways to put a cap on the contributions of Murray (18.7 points per game) and Toomey (14.2 points per game) will also be vital.
“We just have limit them as much as we can,” Eckenrode said.
Murray, like Lawyer, is a shooting guard who can fill up the basket from anywhere on the court.
“She’s really a good off guard,” Eckenrode said. “She plays off the ball and can shoot.”
The 6-foot, 1-inch Toomey is a big, physical presence inside who knows how to create space for herself.
“She’s a beast,” Eckenrode said of Toomey. “I can tell you that she’s really tough inside. She’s a really good post player.”
In their man-to-man defensive sets, Eckenrode expects freshman Gianna Hoddinott and senior Riley Vingsen, the team’s top two defenders, to take turns covering Murray, while the 6-foot, 1-inch Zumbrum will primarily defend Toomey. If either proves to be ineffective, the Delone coach will likely give help to both, perhaps by switching to a zone.
The other key is keeping the game close early. If the Lady Bucks can grab a double-digit lead in the first quarter, it could be a rough night for Delone. If it remains a close game late, however, the Squirettes have shown a penchant for making all of the right plays when it counts the most.
The edge: There's little doubt that Dunmore enters as a prohibitive favorite.
The Bucks just routed a Trinity team that owns two 11-point wins over Delone.
In addition, Dunmore faced a much daunting journey through the eastern half of the bracket than Delone faced in the west. Dumore's second-round PIAA win came over St. Basil, which entered that game unbeaten.
Basil, Neumann-Goretti and Trinity were all ranked in the top five in the state in 3-A.
So, can the Squirettes somehow pull off a miracle?
If these two teams played a seven-game series, it would be very difficult for Eckenrode's squad. The state final, however, is a one-game, winner-take-all affair. In other words, anything can happen.
“This game (the final) is easy,” Eckenrode said. “There’s no pressure. Win or lose, we’re done. We’re not even supposed to be here, yet somehow we’ve arrived. We’re playing our best basketball of the year right now. I hope it just persists for one more game.”
For Dunmore, the stakes, and the pressure, couldn’t be higher. The Bucks are seeking the program’s first-ever state title and they definitely don't want to see a season of great expectations ruined on the state’s biggest stage. That kind of pressure can sometimes lead to tight play, uncharacteristic mistakes and, sometimes, a major upset.
Reach Ryan Vandersloot at email@example.com.