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Junior class leading the way for Springfield (Delco.) girls

01/20/2022, 12:15am EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

SPRINGFIELD -- Springfield (Delco.) already had to replace two 1,000-point scorers coming into this season, with Alexa Abbonizio and Rachel Conran both beginning their college careers at West Chester. Then Ky McNichol’s program suffered a major blow in December, when junior Lexi Aaron went down in the Cougars’ game against Strath Haven, lost for the rest of the season to injury.

“When Lexi went down, it was really sad for the whole team,” McNichol said. “She’s a great kid, she’s a great leader for us.

Mia Valerio (above) and Springfield (Delco.) had to readjust after losing their leading scorer to injury. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)f

“We actually all kind of put our heads down for a second,” fellow junior Mia Valerio said. 

Not just one of McNichols’ leaders, Aaron was also the Cougars’ primary offensive option, averaging around 13 ppg. 

“She was our leading scorer, 3-point shooter, able to get to the basket,” McNichol said. “We had to find ways for other kids to step up and score.”

One of the top programs in District 1 5A and the Central League, the Cougars had to adjust. Aaron was one of a strong class of juniors, one McNichol had had her eye on since they were leading St. Francis CYO into the final four of the archdiocese tournament. 

Coming off a season where they won the district championship and finished in the state semifinals, Springfield had high hopes for 2021-22, whether Aaron was able to play or not. So they gathered themselves together — and just kept winning.

“These kids have all stepped up and picked her up, been great supporters for her and stepped up on the court where we needed to fill some of those pieces,” said McNichol, who’s won two Central League and three district titles in her eight seasons at Springfield.

“It took a little bit of energy and positivity to really boot us back up,” Valerio said, “but we responded really quickly and got back to where we needed to be — where we left off, basically.”

Indeed, the Cougars haven’t missed a step.

A 41-35 win over Conestoga on Wednesday night solidified Springfield’s place atop the Central League standings, keeping them an unbeaten 8-0 in league play (8-2 overall). 

Springfield got balanced scoring, with four of the five juniors who make up the starting lineup taking turns picking their spots: Kaitlyn Kearney (11 points), Valerio (10), Taylor Hunyet (9) and Anabel Kreydt (7). Their fifth starter, Sophia Ward, didn’t score but contributed three steals and rebounds, while contributing to the Cougars’ staunch defensive effort. 

“Our defense is really strong — our high pace, our energy,” said Valerio, who’s been a key player for Springfield since her freshman season. “Our communication’s gotten a lot better, but our defense is holding us, and we score when we need to.”

Ky McNichol (above) has led Springfield (Delco.) to two Central League titles in her eight years as the Cougars' head coach, and made the state semifinals last year. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Valerio is one of five who’s been playing together since their elementary school days, bringing quite a bit of chemistry to the Cougars’ roster. But they’re not the only ones who play; a pair of freshmen, Molly Clifford and Alyssa Estep, contributed to the victory, and a few other underclassmen also see reserve minutes. 

On a team without seniors, it’s on the juniors to set the tone. It’s a task that they’ve been waiting for since their middle school and CYO days. The group of elementary school-aged girls who took to the court at halftime wearing Springfield youth jerseys — and chanted ‘DE-FENSE’ loudly from behind the Springfield bench the rest of the game — were a tangible representation, this year’s group once doing exactly the same thing, once dreaming about wearing the Cougars jerseys.

“It means a lot, because we started out young, wearing Springfield,” Valerio said, “and the fact that we came and watched these girls play, we were younger and now we’re in that spot, it’s a completely different experience.”

“They’ve got to be leaders now, they’ve got to put this team on their back, and guide the younger kids to what the kids did before them,” McNichol said. 

The Pioneers (10-3, 7-2) rolled into the sparkling new Blue Gym at Springfield High on Wednesday on a four-game win streak, and played with that momentum for much of the first half. Junior wing Kate Galica, a Virginia-bound lacrosse star, was a defensive force for ‘Stoga, picking up six steals — as well as five rebounds — to turn into 11 points and three assists the other way, including six points during the second quarter.

Three-pointers from Kearney and Valerio helped the Cougars lead 17-15 at halftime, however, and a 10-5 third quarter in the home team’s favor gave them a seven-point edge heading into the final quarter.

One final Galica steal-and-score got Conestoga within four, 31-27, with 3:27 remaining, but the Pioneers didn’t get any closer. A Hunyet corner triple off a Kreydt assist — Kreydt had seven rebounds, three dimes, two steals and a block — restored the seven-point edge, and then foul shooting took it home.

Kaitlyn Kearney (above, left) had 11 points, including four clutch free-throws, in Springfield's win over 'Stoga. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Valerio and Kearney both converted both ends of 1&1s with under a minute to play, helping offset a couple late 3-pointers by ‘Stoga guard Arielle LePage (9 points). Kearney’s last pair, the final points of the game, came with 16.9 seconds remaining.

“I feel like we’re getting better at (finishing games) as the season goes along,” Kearney said. “We still have a couple things we need to work on, like not letting them shoot at the very end, but overall I feel like we’re getting better at it.”

Springfield shot 12-for-23 from the floor and 6-of-9 from 3-point range, helping them offset 14 turnovers. They held Conestoga to 14-of-33 from the floor, though the Pioneers were 3-of-6 from the 3-point arc. 

The No. 2 team in the District 1 5A rankings after Wednesday night’s result, Springfield’s only behind Marple Newtown (9-2, 8-1), which it beat 42-36 at Springfield back on Dec. 17. The return trip to Marple will be on Jan. 29; before that, Springfield has games at Haverford (Jan. 21) and at home against Radnor (Jan. 25) and Harriton (Jan. 27). 

If the Cougars can avoid a defeat until then, the game against Marple might determine not just the top seed in the Central standings but the district ones as well. 

“I think we’re going really strong right now and that nothing is really holding us down,” Valerio said. “We still have work to do, but we’re on a high.”

By Quarter
Springfield:   3   |  14  |  10  |  14  ||  41
Conestoga:   2   |  13  |   5   |  15  ||  35

Springfield: 12-23 FG (6-9 3PT), 11-18 FT
Conestoga: 14-33 FG (4-8 3PT), 3-6 FT

Springfield: Kaitlyn Kearney 11, Mia Valerio 10, Taylor Hunyet 9, Anabel Kreydt 7, Alyssa Estep 3, Molly Clifford 1

Conestoga: Kate Galica 11, Arielle LePage 9, Janie Preston 6, Marisa Francione 5, Katie Faith 2, Bella Valencia 2

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