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Prepping for Preps ’21-22: Villa Maria Academy

11/17/2021, 3:15pm EST
By Rich Flanagan

Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
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(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.)

Kathy McCartney sits on the sidelines

Kathy McCartney (above) has won 11 District 1 titles in her 30 years as a high school head coach. (Photo courtesy Kathy McCartney)

Kathy McCartney knows that sustained success comes with adaptation.

It’s one thing to stick to philosophies or principles that have led to success on the hardwood for years but with the game constantly changing, the longtime Villa Maria Academy head coach enters her 32rd season continuing to find ways to acclimate her players with the state of today’s game.

“I think you have to be able to have every player handle the ball,” McCartney said. “In the past, we would have the 6-foot-2 player down on the box, but now they have to run the floor and finish. That’s not left for the guards anymore. If you want to be successful, you have to change with the game and if you don’t, you’re going to get left in the dust.”

With over 30 years of experience at the helm as high school coach where she has won 11 District 1 titles and led the Hurricanes to 18 title game appearances, McCartney, who took Villa Maria Academy to the 2007 PIAA Class 3A title game, thrives on adaptability. She played at Bishop Shanahan, its previous location in West Chester before the new campus opened in Downingtown, and became the first girls player in school history to score 1,000 career points. She was named a High School All-American as a senior.

She went on to have a sensational career at La Salle where she helped the Explorers reach their first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history in 1983 under Kevin Gallagher. Her teammates included Gina Tobin, who sits 10th on the program’s all-time list in assists (342), Ellen Malone, who sits third all-time in steals (226), and Patty Dugan, a 1981-82 captain. Malone and former teammate Julie Reidenauer are members of the Big 5 Hall of Fame.

She has seen the game from many angles in her career and never stops looking for ways to see how players are changing.

“The game has sped up because the girls are more athletic and the way they train is much different,” McCartney said. “From an offensive perspective, there are morphing of systems so most teams are running more like the NBA-style game by isolating kids or pick and roll on one side. There’s more of that going on at the high-school level rather than the structured half court sets that were more prevalent years ago.”

Mary Gary Murphy dribbles a basketball

Mary Gary Murphy (above) occassionaly started last season, but is expected to consistently start this year. (Photo courtesy Kathy McCartney)

Last year was the first time McCartney, who has won over 600 games in her career, felt as if she could not adapt fast enough to the changing environment that was high school sports intertwined in the climate of the COVID-19 pandemic. Villa Maria Academy (5-9, 4-8 Athletic Association of Catholic Academies) played an abbreviated schedule, but the season got off to a rough start as the program had to be shut down in December for an extended period. The unsettling year caused the Hurricanes to miss the AACA playoffs, only the second time that has ever happened under McCartney.

For a program that had won a district crown in 2019 and has reached the state quarterfinals five times since 2010, it was a down year in the win-loss column but not in terms of talent. Peyton Tague, who shot 40 percent from the field and 33 percent from behind the arc as a senior, is playing at Marymount University, and Ally Trebelev is playing at Franklin & Marshall College. Carina Chieffalo is playing lacrosse at St. Joe’s. Also gone are Faith Iacone and Katie Steinetz.

Villa Maria Academy’s record was not what many have come to expect from a McCartney team, but the veteran head coach was able to find a strong positive to build on.

“I was able to get younger players minutes and, while we may have lost some games, the juniors coming back played a lot as sophomores,” McCartney said. “In a normal year, that may not have happened. They got a lot of experience which I’m hoping will be beneficial to us this year.”

One of those players is 5-7 sophomore guard Carly Catania. She poured in 11 points against Mount St. Joseph Academy and nailed three three-pointers against Merion Mercy. “She's got a really high basketball IQ. She passes the ball very well and she’s as tenacious as can be. She just wants to win,” according to McCartney.

Mary Gary Murphy, a 5-6 senior guard who was a part-time starter last season, will “be starting in the backcourt,” McCartney said. She also expects big things from 5-5 junior guard Elaina Guerzon.

One area the Hurricanes will not be short on this season is height. Ella Iacone, a 5-10 junior and Faith’s younger sister, “will be a two or a three. These kids are interchangeable because they can do a myriad of things,” as McCartney notes. Clare Conley, a 5-11 junior forward, will “be a swing player at the three and four spots” and fellow 5-10 junior forward Marah McHugh “played varsity last year but didn’t get a ton of minutes. She’s going to be a really solid contributor,” McCartney said.

Carly Catania runs on the court

Carly Catania (above) is expected to play a large role for the Hurricanes this season. (Photo courtesy Kathy McCartney)

With so many taller players on this year’s roster, McCartney is excited about the offensive mismatches that can be created while also finding ways to extend her defense.

“It gives you a lot of versatility in the lineup which is great,” McCartney said. “We’re going to have some length on defense this year which will really help us. We can crank up the defense with our length and rebounding.”

The Hurricanes open the season on Dec. 10 in the West Chester Henderson Tip-Off Tournament against the host team. They will play Scranton Prep on Dec. 17 then also play non-league matchups against Archbishop Carroll, Germantown Academy and the Academy of Notre Dame. After AACA play, they have scheduled matchups against three Central League opponents in Radnor, Springfield and Ridley to close out the regular season.

The AACA will be competitive once again with the likes of Gwynedd Mercy, Villa Joseph Marie, Mount St. Joseph and Sacred Heart Academy but it will look a little different in 2021-22. St. Basil Academy, which had won the last five AACA titles, closed at the end of the academic year. A program that also won eight district titles and produced players like Mississippi State freshman Denae Carter is now gone.

Losing a member as dominant as St. Basil Academy would be difficult for any league locally and McCartney knows the ramifications of the school’s closure will be evident.

“We’re really sad to see them go, especially from a competitive standpoint,” McCartney said. “As a league, you hate to lose a good team and the battles that we had with them were epic. I will say this as a Catholic school educator that I hate to see a school close. We lose a little something when one of those schools close.”

Coming off a down year has made Villa Maria Academy even more eager to start the season. Having not won an AACA title since 2012, there is optimism that this year’s team could reclaim that along with the hope of another deep district and state tournament run.

There’s so much more excitement compared to a season ago and McCartney wants her team to focus on that.

“The upside of last season was that everyone is chomping at the bit this year,” McCartney said. “The kids are excited to get back to normal and so are the coaches. You’re going to see that in a lot of schools as the season unfolds because when something gets taken away from you, you appreciate it more.”


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