Sean McBryan (@SeanMcBryan)
(Ed. Note: This story is the latest in CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2021-22 season preview coverage. As we publish more, the complete list of schools previewed will be found here.)
Anna Azzara (above, at the USciences Shootout in October) was the Rams' starting point guard as a freshman. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Losing four seniors presents a big challenge for any team heading into the next season. When those seniors led you to a District 1 championship and into the PIAA final, that challenge looms larger.
On the bright side, there are players who learned from those seniors and gained valuable experience playing or observing postseason basketball. Younger players are more prepared to take a leading role.
Both of these are true for Spring-Ford girls basketball, which graduated all-time leading scorer and two-time first-team all-state selection Lucy Olsen, now a freshman at Villanova. Olsen averaged 19.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 3.1 steals as a senior.
Graduating alongside Olsen were impact players Abbey Boyer (Immaculata), Hailey Hudak (Bloomsburg), Emily Tiffan and Mac Maloney, leaving plenty of holes to be filled.
The Rams return key pieces in sophomores Anna Azzara, Mackenzie “Mac” Pettinelli and Katie Tiffan, Emily’s younger sister, all of whom played critical roles in the team’s success last season.
“We know we’ve been very fortunate the last four years with Lucy, Emily, Abbey, Hailey and Mac (Maloney),” Spring-Ford head coach Mickey McDaniel said.
Nearly 70 percent of the offensive scoring and 58 percent of total rebounding will need to be replaced on the defending Pioneer Athletic Conference and District 1 champions.
“Most of the seniors from last year were the leaders on the team, especially Lucy,” Azzara said. “I think Mac (Pettinelli) and I are really going to have to step up this season.”
Azzara started as the freshman point guard on the otherwise senior-laden lineup for the Rams in 2020-21. She was an All-PAC second-team selection after averaging 8.6 points (third on team), 3.6 rebounds (third on team), 2.4 assists (second on team) and 1.5 steals (second on team). The 5-6 point guard played for Comets AAU this past summer.
Pettinelli was a crucial piece coming off the bench and played in all 25 games for the Rams in their run to the state final. She averaged 3.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists during the season, and played increasing minutes down the stretch during the playoff run. She can play the two, three or four. She also suited up for Comets AAU.
Tiffan, a guard who played AAU for Lexie Gerson Basketball over the summer, averaged 3.0 points and 1.2 rebounds in 18 games last year.
They’ll be the three main cogs in the Rams lineup in 2021 and McDaniel will rely on them to shoulder the load in replacing what was lost.
“Anna, Mac and Katie stepped in and understood what we do (last season),” McDaniel said. “Now we have a number of freshmen and sophomores who are learning.”
Pettinelli and Azzara have been playing together since the fourth grade. The chemistry showed during a girls basketball event at Kutztown University in mid-October as they efficiently played off each other, knowing where the other would be on the court at all times.
Mac Pettinelli (above, at the USciences Shootout in October) has been playing hoops with Azzara since fourth grade. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Azzara is the primary ball handler and a scorer at all three levels. The 5-9 Pettinelli can handle the ball well for her size and operates on quick decision-making in the high post.
Azzara showed her scoring ability with 19-point and 14-point games at the Kutztown event. Pettinelli showed her all-around game in the first slate with seven assists, setting up Azzara for multiple buckets off nice cuts to the rim, and seven rebounds. Tiffan will be key in taking pressure off Azzara and Pettinelli if defensives key in on them during the regular season.
One of the biggest challenges will be filling out the rest of the rotation. Seniors Kam Pufko, De’ja Engle, Juliana Scogna, Kylie Lee and Morgan Pizzi, who each played in 17 or more games last season, should help in that department.
McDaniel will also look toward some inexperienced sophomores and freshmen to get some minutes. He noted the focus is on each player getting one percent better each day through lifting and open gyms before he makes his final evaluations.
“It’s a teaching year,” McDaniel said. “You don’t graduate what we graduated and just become the No. 1 team in the state or in your league. We have some work to do but I’m really excited because these kids work hard.”
A fifth straight PAC title and back-to-back District titles with a state tournament opportunity isn’t unreasonable.
McDaniel enters his ninth season as head coach after taking over for Jeff Rinehimer in 2013. Rinehimer had gone 321-167 in 19 seasons, 18 of which McDaniel was on the bench as an assistant. McDaniel has never had a losing record as head coach; the Rams have won 15 or more games every season he’s been in charge. Spring-Ford is 172-55 in his nine seasons.
“We still have big goals,” Azzara said. “Possibly win districts, hopefully be PAC champs. Just getting better as a team.”
That’s not to say it won’t be more challenging than last year in which the team went 14-0 in the PAC and 24-1 overall. Last year’s Rams only had five of their wins decided by single digits and averaged a 29-point margin of victory until the 55-40 setback to North Allegheny in the PIAA Class 6A championship game.
Spring-Ford has a tune-up scrimmage against District 3 Class 6A champs Cumberland Valley in early December before matchups against Haverford, which finished 7-3 after bowing out of the District 1 Class 6A second round, and Springfield, which went to the PIAA Class 5A semifinals, to start off its season.
“We are taking it day by day,” McDaniel said. “Our coaches aren’t even thinking ahead to the PAC, districts and states. We are thinking about how we can help each individual in workouts and how those individuals can help the team as a whole.”