The consensus of many of the York-Adams League girls’ basketball coaches during media day back in mid-November was that the Delone Catholic girls were going to be good.
With three returning players — Bradi Zumbrum, Brooke Lawyer and Riley Vingsen — from a team that finished 21-6 in 2017-18, the Squirettes had a nice base to build around this season. Throw in a handful of talented freshmen coming off a state Catholic Youth Organization title as eighth graders, and the Delone girls certainly had the makings of a true contender.
There's a difference between being good and being great. The good teams will qualify for their league and district tournament. The really good ones will qualify for the state draw and maybe win a game or two. Only the truly great teams, however, are able to find their way to Hershey to play for a state championship, let alone win one.
So, how exactly did veteran coach Gerry Eckenrode and the Delone girls go from being good at the beginning of the season to being great at the end, capping the season with a thrilling 49-43 victory over previously unbeaten Dunmore in the PIAA Class 3-A state title game?
If you ask Eckenrode, who has tallied 467 career victories and four state titles during his 20 years of leading the program, the answer is mostly about timing.
“It’s just that the kids caught fire (during the state run) and got it done,” he said after his team finished a 26-4 season.
Eckenrode willing to make changes: One of the most important keys to the state title was that Delone had a coach who was willing to make some bold changes to try to get his team over the hump.
A renewed focus on defense was perhaps the most visible difference between the team that fell in the District 3 Class 3-A title game against Trinity and the one that rolled through a pair of district champions on its way to a spot in the state semifinals.
Eckenrode found more playing time for freshman guards Giana Hoddinott (4.8 points per game) and Camryn Felix (6.6 points per game). Those two played key roles — Hoddinott defensively and Felix with her ball-handling skill and free-throw shooting — during Delone’s five-game run to a state crown.
“I changed the lineup around a little bit,” Eckenrode said. “And the freshmen like Giana and Camryn have, over the year, gotten used to what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Fearless freshmen: Zumbrum admired the fearless way that those two played Thursday on the biggest stage of the season.
“I really think Camryn and Giana really stepped up,” Zumbrum said. “For a freshman to come into a state championship game starting (is very hard). So I give them full credit.”
Making a change like that to the lineup is much easier to attempt during the ups and downs of the regular season. But doing it during the playoffs? That’s gutsy, but also smart coaching, according to one of Eckenrode’s coaching peers.
“It takes a good coach to remain patient and continue to adjust,” York Catholic coach Kevin Bankos said of Eckenrode. “After a tough loss in the district final, he continued to make adjustments. I think that coach Eckenrode is one of the main reasons they won a state title.”
Praise for Zumbrum, Vingsen, Lawyer: Eckenrode, who admitted to spending long hours late at night and early in the morning preparing his team’s game plan during the state run, couldn’t have done it himself. He heaped a ton of praise on Zumbrum, a York College recruit who averaged 11.7 points per game, not only for her outstanding play on the court, but also for her leadership.
“Bradi would sometimes get into a situation where things weren’t going her way,” Eckenrode said. “And she would get down and it affected her play. But over these last three weeks she’s grown up as a player to right where I thought that she should be. She showed tremendous leadership.”
Ditto for Vingsen, an unheralded ball-handler, passer and defender. While she may not have put up the points of a Lawyer or Zumbrum game in and game out, Vingsen (5.3 points per game) was unquestionably one of the biggest reasons behind the team’s success this year.
“Riley never gets credit for anything,” Eckenrode said. “She’s just a truly gritty player … a defensive player. I can’t say enough about her.”
Perhaps the most encouraging thing for Eckenrode and the program moving forward is that, in addition to those talented freshmen, Lawyer (team-high 13.1 points per game) will be back as well. It could be said that much of Delone’s success in big games this season revolved around the junior guard, who scored a game-high 20 points in the state title game.
“Brooke … she’s the best shooter that I’ve had in 20 years,” Eckenrode said. “And it’s not even close.”
Reach Ryan Vandersloot at firstname.lastname@example.org.